Finally, a best picture frontrunner that's actually fully deserving of the title.
In this year of highly politicized cinema, from "Good Night and Good Luck" to "Munich," "Brokeback Mountain" one-ups all of these films, delivering a powerful, human drama that breaks down barriers for the depiction of homosexuals in cinema. It would be no small feat for this film to reach a mainstream audience with such a message, but that is exactly what is happening.
Often, gays in film are depicted within a narrow range of situations, either as dying from AIDS or acting out horribly stereotyped behavioral clichés. The genius of "Brokeback" is how the relationship between Ennis del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) is developed like a heterosexual relationship: the issue is not homosexuality, but the struggles of a couple who, for some reason, are unable to be together. Here, their gender is not the end result but merely a stop along the narrative road.
This film goes beyond just being revelatory however, and reaches a level of sociological and political truth, allegorically showing the effects of a society that constrains people from acting in their private life in ways they see fit. These are the dangers of closed-mindedness.
The film tells the story of Ennis and Jack, two ranch hands in 1963 Wyoming who work on Brokeback Mountain together one summer, and fall in love. It then follows them during the following 20 years, as they struggle with their feelings for each other. There is no frame of reference for them to understand these emotions, only the knowledge that what they want is certainly not socially acceptable. In a flashback, Ennis remembers a time as a young boy when his father took him to see a man dragged by his penis, punished for being "one of those."
And so they both marry, but still long for each other, making do with long weekends and succinct postcards, their desire lurking just beneath the surface.
Along the way the viewer has much by which to be enraptured. Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography stunningly evokes the peace and epic scope of the American West. Gustavo Santaolalla's score also subtly underplays the action occurring on screen, never scene stealing but properly illuminating the material.
Director Ang Lee truly is a marvel, showing himself as capable in the Victorian England of "Sense & Sensibility" and medieval China of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" as he is in current day rural America. He is a superlative director, showcasing his range, talent and humanity without ever being showy.
In "Brokeback", he subtly, and extremely effectively, uses the first 20 minutes of the film to ground the viewer in Jack and Ennis's relationship and understand the nature of it, the intimacy, the desire. Then great narrative leaps can be effortlessly made over the next two decades, thus being able to focus solely on the important parts of the narrative and nothing more. Lee's achievements throughout certainly merit the honor of an Oscar for best director.
The screenplay, a masterful adaptation, upholds the sparse dialogue from the original short story by Annie Proulx. Although fully fleshed out it never feels overdone or reaching for additional plot elements. It keeps the film focused on the images as well as the subtext of their relationship, because here so much is left unsaid.
No discussion of "Brokeback Mountain" can be complete without praise for Heath Ledger. His performance is one for the ages, and the New York Times's comparison with Marlon Brando is fully deserved. Nothing, save a small part in Monster's Ball, has ever shown Mr. Ledger to have this kind of range and depth of emotion as an actor. For Ennis, every word is a struggle, his stoicism perfectly pitched for his character.
Another of the film's achievements is in Michelle Williams's superb performance as Alma, Ennis's wife. Much like her screen and real life husband, nothing from "Dawson's Creek" ever displayed the talent she possesses. Williams' underplays her discovery of Ennis's desires with such subtlety that observing her as a third party to Jack and Ennis's embrace and kiss, one can almost see the wave of realization sweeping over her face.
Jake Gyllenhaal's idealistic Jack Twist is vital for the story of "Brokeback" to hold together. In the year of Gyllenhaal, with three lead performances in major pictures, this is a career peak thus far. His performance is infused with such charm and stoic longing, one can see how Ennis fell for him.
The most special of movie-going experiences is one when everything seems to come together just right, far exceeding one's expectations. "Brokeback Mountain" is a culmination of the best of actors, directors, screenwriters, and technicians all coming together and delivering their best work. Let's all hope that on March 5 things go well for Ennis and Jack with deserved success at the Oscars.
4 stars (of 4)