Seven Golden Globe nominations. Several Best Picture achievements. What a difference a few years make. Only two years after "The Hulk," Ang Lee has returned with a front-runner in the Oscar race - "Brokeback Mountain" - and what an unlikely contender it is.
While critics are traditionally quite liberal, "Brokeback Mountain" is a romance story - starring two men. This isn't some trashy straight-to-video cheese flick or some no-name gay and lesbian film festival winner - "Brokeback Mountain" is a legitimate and dramatic romantic drama that just happens to star two men. The movie is faring surprisingly well in conservative markets, suggesting a successful box office run to parallel its critical achievements. All in all, things are looking good for the film... but how good is it?
Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal star as two young cowboys who are hired to heard sheep for the summer. At some point during their isolation, their relationship grows to something more. But, when the summer ends, they split ways. Ennis (Ledger) marries a woman (Michelle Williams) and has two daughters, while Jack (Gyllenhaal) ends up with a wife (Anne Hathaway) and sprite of his own. Four years later, though, the two reunite and flames return. Over the years they meet up occasionally, but those meetings threaten to tear their families apart.
Lee has successfully delivered a film that neither tries to shock the audience nor shy away from it. For its subject matter, some may call it "clean cut," but compare it to any other romantic drama and it really isn't much different. It has some sex, it has some kissing and it has lots of drama, all told and shown in a matter-of-fact kind of way. Lee rarely tries to sensationalize the story, and he doesn't try to rush things either. At times the movie feels just a tad slow, but never boring. "Brokeback Mountain" works from beginning to end.
What really makes the film is the acting. Powered by a good screenplay, Ledger and Gyllenhaal deliver great performances. Both are captivating and convincing, though it is Ledger who by far steals the show. Gyllenhaal, as good of an actor as he is, remains Gyllenhaal, while Ledger transcends to that level where, even without any makeup, you can't recognize him. Williams is also strong in a supporting role, and kudos to Anne Hathaway for breaking away from her "Princess Diaries" stereotype to do something completely different (smoking, nudity, bitchiness).
As a side note, there is one stretch of five minutes or so near the end where Gyllenhaal and Ledger are arguing; Ledger, in one of the most powerful moments of the film, is not convincing at all, as Lee used some weird editing to insert a flashback that completely threw me off. Not a big deal, but definitely a flaw.
All around, "Brokeback Mountain" has the makings of an Oscar-worthy film. That being said, it hasn't convinced me that it is the powerhouse it was hyped to be. As good as it is, there is nothing in the film that spellbound me, or left me breathless, or engaged me completely. Great film, but this is not the Best Picture of the year.
Now out on DVD while it is still out in theaters in a few places, "Brokeback Mountain," the undeniable victor of 2005 and yet the surprising loser as well (referring to the Oscars), boasts the kind of special features you'd expect from a romantic drama - featurettes, featurettes, featurettes and the uncensored NC-17 version. Okay, that last part was made up (thankfully), but the DVD really has nothing too exciting to offer, but that's okay because I wasn't expecting much in the first place.
There's a making-of featurette, an Ang Lee featurette, an "On Being a Cowboy" featurette, and an interview with the two writers. Honestly, they all sort of blended together for me and are more like chapters of the same story: what the heck went into making "Brokeback Mountain" the success it is? None of the featurettes are very marketing-driven in nature, which is good, and all are fairly informative, which is about as much of a compliment as you can give to such things.
One thing that I think would have been sort of funny would have been a behind-the-scenes look at the scenes where Gyllenhaal and Ledger have sex or make out or whatever, to see their preparation for the scenes and the kinds of jokes that went on.
All in all, "Brokeback Mountain" has a pretty good DVD considering the type of movie it is. Nothing special, but more than enough.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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