Some critics are calling this one of the best films, if not the best film, of the year. Some audience members have been seen and heard crying at the end. Some awards handicappers are predicting that Heath Ledger is a shoo-in for a Best Actor Oscar.
I don't get it.
This leaden film, while featuring some good acting and some stunning scenery, is full of gaping holes in logic and character motivation. And director Ang Lee and writers Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana haven't succeeded at fleshing out the 30-page Annie Proulx story into anything worthy of its 134-minute running time.
The plot is simple: Ennis (Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) meet while applying for jobs as seasonal sheep herders in and around isolated Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming. Jack is talkative; Ennis, practically silent. Jack fancies himself a cowboy; Ennis is secretive. For the most part, both are enigmatic. The only thing they seem to have in common is a cigarette habit. They're there to get the job done in a lonely place where nothing much happens. But one cold snowy night out on the range, they share a tent. One of them, suddenly and inexplicably filled with sexual desire, jumps on the other one, who fights back for about two seconds, then gives in. It's short and rough, and in the morning, there's no talk of what happened, beyond Jack's "It's nobody's business but ours." This marks the beginning of a secret 20-year affair, which they attempt to keep from their wives and families.
That's it. That's the whole story. The relationship isn't explored beyond the fact that one of the men wants it to continue, while the other one probably believes it's wrong. And we're denied some extremely important information about what they think this relationship could do to their wives, and to their children.
From there, the film slowly lurches through the years, peeking in on Ennis's family, suggesting that there's a growing storm of emotional turmoil within him. There are also glimpses of what Jack is going through, both inside and outside of his marriage -- working for his father-in-law is not what he wants out of life; a solo visit to a seedy Mexican border town reveals quite a bit about him. And there are the irregularly scheduled "fishing trips" they tell their wives they're going on, always by the river in the shadow of Brokeback Mountain.
Despite all the hullabaloo about the film being controversial, anyone looking for hot sex is going to be very disappointed. There are a couple of carefully photographed bits of them rolling and tumbling in that tent, and there are two extended kissing sequences. Nudity is relegated to the wives in two short bedroom scenes with their husbands -- one of which has an air of happiness and love, while the other will make some viewers squirm.
Despite all the accolades for Ledger, what he does mostly here is mumble. That's certainly a style of acting, but when it gets to the point of not being able to understand what he's saying, it becomes a problem. And Gyllenhaal (who, for some reason, has been relegated to supporting actor status by some awards organizations) does more physical posing than acting. People should be talking about the women in the film. Michelle Williams' performance as Ennis' wife, Alma, reaches heartbreaking proportions when she stumbles upon the truth, then panics, as all color drains from her face. And Anne Hathaway (best known for her star turns in Disney teen films), as Jack's wife, Lureen, pulls off a major character change as she turns bitter and emerges as a shell of her former self. Hathaway also gets to don a series of more and more garish wigs as she slips from grace.
Ang Lee and his talented crew have terrifically captured a time and place -- the American West in the 1960s and '70s (though it was all shot in Alberta, Canada). But the film is top-heavy with silences, leaving the audience to wonder what makes these tragic characters make these decisions. The overwrought ending was most likely designed to bring some tears to viewers who have been caught up in the story. But even at this late point in the film, the issue of motivations from all sides in still up in the air, and the scene comes across as confusing and slightly embarrassing.
If you want to see a great piece of acting from Heath Ledger, check out the underrated and enormously entertaining Lords of Dogtown. If you want to see a sad and romantic movie, go see King Kong.
Brokeback Mountain, Rated: R; Directed Ang Lee; Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway