Based on a short story by Annie Proulx, "Brokeback Mountain" stands as a seminal movie, not just for Pride Month, but as a piece of dramatic filmmaking that should be seen by all. It's a heartbreaking tale of unrequited love that in another time and place could have flourished.
Directed by Ang Lee, "Brokeback Mountain" is an epic Western drama that spans twenty years. While both leading men are main characters in their own right, the film spends more time with wrangler Ennis (Heath Ledger). The story begins in Wyoming in 1963, where young Ennis is hoping to land a job herding sheep. It's on this job where he meets budding rodeo cowboy Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal). And the two venture up the mountainside for a harrowing, months-long gig.
A man of few words, Ennis is hiding pain from his childhood. Jack will bring this pain out of Ennis, as their lives intersect over the course of many years. But, here in 1963, it's not long before Ennis's facade starts to crack. After a night of drinking to temper the cold, Jack and Ennis find more than companionship; they find love.
While the two men drift apart after that summer, four years later Jack locates Ennis and reaches out. They soon re-connect. And even though they both moved on, married, and had kids, their love is still as fresh as it ever was. Annual fishing trips ensue, pushing both men to the boundaries of love. But, after seeing Jack and Ennis kiss on the first day they reconnect, Ennis's wife Alma (Michelle Williams) begins to notice that he never brings home any fish.
"Brokeback Mountain" was a commercial and critical success. During the 2005 awards race, the romantic drama stood as the front-runner for many awards. Its principal cast -- Ledger, Gyllenhaal, Williams, and Anne Hathaway -- were all praised for their performances, just as much as Lee was for his understated direction. "Brokeback Mountain" won many top honors that year, including top awards at both the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs. Many expected the film to take Best Picture at the 78th Academy Awards. Controversially, it fell short along with its nominated cast. The drama still won three Oscars for Best Director (Lee), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Score.
In 2018, the Library of Congress added "Brokeback Mountain" to the National Film Registry. Now, sixteen years after its release, beyond Pride Month the film still stands as an essential piece of cinema.
Pride Month Connections
"Brokeback Mountain" is heralded as a major turning point in LGBTQ cinema. Along with Jonathan Demme's "Philadelphia," "Brokeback Mountain" helped bring gay and lesbian stories to the mainstream. And the film's impact is still felt today.
The story confronts truths. Truths that have long since been tucked away, and in certain aspects of our society have thus remained unconfronted. But this story is just as American as any Western starring John Wayne, and it's one that needs to be told. As Stephen Holden pointed out in his New York Times review, the setting of this film is the same setting as the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard.
The complex relationship at the core of the story became a hot debate during its theatrical run. Instead of focusing on the film's themes, many critics tried to place labels on the central relationship. But that's the thing -- relationships are not binary nor are they black and white. Whether Jack and Ennis are gay, bi, or something else, is not as important as the true love that they feel. This love is universal and helps us connect to the characters in the film. It's something we all should not lose sight of as we celebrate these stories and listen and understand each other.
Why You Should See It
"Brokeback Mountain" is not an easy watch, but it is vital. In 2005, people diminished it as a "gay cowboy movie." Obviously, there's more to the story. But looking back it's clear that a majority of Oscar voters at the time couldn't see past the pretense to honor the film for what it was. Lee did earn Best Director, but he still feels the pain of "Brokeback Mountain" losing to "Crash." Indeed, there was an audible gasp when Jack Nicholson read the winner. The result even stunned Nicholson himself.
One can also dismiss the movie for its casting of straight actors playing gay men. But what is acting if not the ability to transform yourself and make the audience believe that you are the embodiment of this person and that person's soul? And watching now years after Heath Ledger's untimely passing makes his performance all the more tragic.
Simply put, as Roger Ebert wrote in his review, "It is the story of a time and place where two men are forced to deny the only great passion either one will ever feel. Their tragedy is universal. It could be about two women or lovers from different religious or ethnic groups -- any 'forbidden' love."
Did You Know
You wouldn't think it, but "Brokeback Mountain" does have CG effects. Most of the visual effects were used to create CGI sheep. The script called for 2,500 sheep, but only 700 were on hand. Not only that, but the film crew also had their hands full with the actual live sheep. The sheep wouldn't drink from streams around the set, and the Canadian government expressed health concerns for the livestock when one scene called for the mixing of Canadian and American sheep. It's no wonder that after shooting "Sense and Sensibility" in 1995 director Ang Lee swore to never again work with sheep.
Matt Lissauer is a writer & data manager for Noovie. When he is not busy writing listicles, Matt is enjoying life in New Jersey with his lovely wife and three kids.