Universal Home Video
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway, and Randy Quaid
"The Pentecost… I don't… I don't know what the Pentecost is. I guess it means the world ends and guys like you and me march off to hell."
There's no two ways about it: the 'controversy' surrounding the theatrical release of "Brokeback Mountain" was the product of an aggressive campaign from the religious right to stamp out any compassion for men and women living a lifestyle it deems sinful. Sadly, some of the people who go to my church fall into this camp. Yes, to get it out of the way and expose my possible bias, I've been a church kid my entire life and my wife and I work with the teenagers in our youth group every week. Why am I telling you all this? It may not seem like a movie review is the best forum for this sort of discussion, but these kinds of issues are exactly what makes modern film so relevant.
I was raised under an open moral code where the mantra seemed to be, "hate the sin but love the sinner" (which you could easily debate the legitimacy of… but at least it contains a level of acceptance and love). Somewhere between that lesson and the present day world we live in, that mantra has changed significantly. Suddenly, the story everyone used to point to with Jesus saving a prostitute from the angry mob has been shoved into the background, particuarly when discussing the issue of homosexuality. Surely Jesus wouldn't have interrupted the stoning of a gay man… right? Of course he would… and he would have still pointed out the hypocrisy of the crowd, their hands gripped tightly around handfuls of stones. The most ironic loss in this modern, moral conundrum isn't to the gay community, but to the Christian community. When it encourages disassociation with a group of people, it loses sight of its purpose and seems hateful to anyone observing the situation. It picks up a hand full of rocks and takes its position alongside the violent crowd.
With that in mind, I called a group of friends last year, headed for the theater, and stood in a line my father would shake his head at. As the movie began, I was struck by all the things you'll read in the reviews: the gorgeous cinematography centered around the American wilderness, the impressively ranged and subtle acting of the entire cast, the tragedy of forbidden love, and the devastating blow of love lost. The story centers around two men, Jack and Ennis (Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger), who meet when working for a ranch owner (Randy Quaid) that hires them to watch his animals in the mountains of Wyoming for the winter. They stumble into a sexual relationship that enthralls Jack… but frightens Ennis when it becomes emotional. The film follows their separate and sometimes intertwined lives over the next two decades as they try to cope with wives they can never truly love (Michelle Williams plays Ledgers wife and Anne Hathaway plays Gyllenhaal's).
About an hour in, I just wasn't enjoying the film like most Best Picture nominees. I remember checking out for a moment in my thoughts, wondering if I had somehow become as homophobic as others without realizing it. Tracking the story back through my head, I replaced Jake with his sister Maggie… and the story still didn't quite click. Then I figured it out: one of the failings of the movie is the 'hook-up'. The director (Ang Lee) is so focused on where the story is going, we're cheated of fully understanding how these men came to roll over on each other in the middle of the night, defying society in an instant. To be clear, neither of these characters are openly gay and it would seem it would take a much more significant trigger to suddenly break those boundaries and spin in this direction. So while everything that follows is a wonderfully mapped character study, I had a difficult time buying into the reality of the foundation.
Even more bothersome to me, even upon my second viewing on this HD-DVD, the film never examines the way the surrounding societies in both men's lives treat them when their secret is revealed. We get flashes and hints… but there's never a moment of examining the issue itself. It's a missed opportunity for the filmmakers, especially when Jack and Ennis's secret doesn't stay quiet for most of the film. To its credit, any other film would give me too much on this point… while "Brokeback Mountain" is concerned with the love story instead of its unfortunate consequences.
Fortunately, these two problems are only small hindrances to an intriguing and heart wrenching love story. As I mentioned before, the performances are astounding. Gyllenhaal is determined but weak, Ledger is stoic but torn, Quaid is gruff but never reveals what he knows, Hathaway is sweet with an undercurrent of something more dangerous, and the brief moments we see with Jack's in-laws are top notch. Best of all, Michelle Williams crafts a surreal confusion and desperation in the character of Alma that is hands down the standout performance in the film.
"Brokeback Mountain" is also simply one of the most beautiful films you'll ever see. Ang Lee has always brought something visually compelling to the screen and his efforts here are nothing less than stellar. I really enjoyed how much he set the tone in his shots so that the emotional turmoil between Jack and Ennis could be expressed beyond their interactions and conversations.
Unfortunately, I would never be able to get a certain crowd from my church to see this film and it's exactly the kind of movie religious folks like my parents should see. "Brokeback Mountain" never enters into a moral debate, sometimes to its detriment, but it does examine change, growth, love, attachment, loyalty, and the emotional hurdles of coming to terms with a different lifestyle. The thing the religious right likely fears is the identification of homosexuals as real people (thus the fury surrounding gay marriage). When you see them as human beings, whether you believe their actions to be right or wrong, it's more difficult to ostracize those people from your fold. The more faceless and immoral you perceive the 'homosexual beast' to be, the less you care for his or her soul. Sadly, and from everything I've come to believe, this is the easy way out… Christians need to open their eyes and realize who it is they claim to follow.
So, inhale… on to things that aren't imbedded in a moral quandary. I thought "Unforgiven" was the benchmark for cinematography in Westerns, but "Brokeback Mountain" provides some welcome competition. The 1080p video presentation through the VC-1 codec is as stunning as the cinematography itself. There's a light wash of grain throughout that's rarely distracting, the color saturation and contrast provide a perfectly natural palette to the proceedings, and the level of detail in the shadows is impeccable. As with most HD-DVD releases that take place outdoors, the upgrade in clarity really brings nature to life on your screen with rocks, leaves, branches, and the effects of the wind.
The audio features a Dolby Digital Plus track that creates the illusion of nature springing up in your home theater. There's a wonderful ambience present in the soundscape of "Brokeback Mountain" that makes all of the scenes on the mountain (and the subsequent fishing trips throughout the rest of the film) feel like excerpts from a Discovery Channel documentary. For the most part, Lee's tale is a quiet one and audiophiles shouldn't expect a miracle from the soundfield. While this will bother people searching out releases with technical bells and whistles, a louder mix would hurt the obscurity of the film's tone. I appreciated the longer moments of complete silence, even absent of music, as they heightened the emotional uncertainty within each character. Ang Lee often uses this technique in his cinematic canon and it cleverly forces you to forget you're watching a movie.
The extra features are laughable for a prominent release that produced such a stir during the Oscar season last year. There are no commentaries, no major documentaries, and no in-depth interviews with the director or cast. Instead, we're left with a throw-away series of featurettes that only uncover a small portion of interesting insight. To be fair, this is better than nothing… which is precisely what fans got on its first release to standard DVD.
First up is "Directing From the Heart", a ten minute meet-and-greet with Ang Lee in which he discusses his motivations for adapting "Brokeback Mountain". Next is an even shorter featurette called "From Script to Screen" that investigates the process of porting the short story to film. Then you'll find the half-hour "Sharing the Story", a smattering spread of interviews with cast and crew members that feels like promotional material rather than an introspective examination of the film and its effects on our culture. Finally, you get a group of featurettes that include "Being a Cowboy", "Music From the Mountain", "A Groundbreaking Success", and "Impressions"… most of which feel like stale afterthoughts. As a soundtrack buff, I was entertained with "Music From the Mountain" the most, but it still fell short of its potential.
For fans of the film, you won't find a better presentation anywhere and, while there's sure to be a more feature packed edition in a few years, you won't find a better value for your money right now.
I wish more people would give "Brokeback Mountain" a chance… I hate when people avoid a film due to its controversial nature because these are the portrayals that allow us to constantly evaluate our position on important issues. The film has some shortcomings but, overall, it's an intriguing character study that pushes fiction aside to create real people in tragic circumstances. It's unfortunate that a small but loud minority of Christians are so intent on suppressing this sort of material. Give it a shot… love it or hate it, at least it'll make you think.