Thursday, August 21, 2008

Brokeback Mountain: Deep as the river runs, warm as the morning sun

"He always said he wanted his ashes scattered on Brokeback Mountain, but I wasn't sure where that was. I thought Brokeback Mountain might be around where he grew up. Knowing Jack, it was probably some pretend place, where bluebirds sing and there's a whiskey spring." -- Lureen Newsome, Brokeback Mountain

Every scene in this beautiful, sensitive and honest film is so well-crafted that one is at a loss about where to begin describing it. I’ll settle for three of my favourite scenes. The first is when Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) part ways after their time at Brokeback Mountain, Ennis reining in his feelings and then collapsing in an alley in an agony of rage and frustration after Jack is out of sight. Heath Ledger conveys a wealth of passion even though he is hunched over and we barely see his face.

The second scene is the one where Ennis and Jack meet in 1967 after being apart for four years. Every single frame in the scene is filled with longing and joy, from the moment Ennis bounds down the steps to when he knocks Jack’s hat off and pins him against the wall, kissing him in a frenzy. I’m not sure what I feel about the inclusion of Alma (Michelle Williams) in that scene. I felt a little cheated at first, since her shock and despair at finding her husband with another man seem to lessen the satisfaction of seeing Ennis and Jack finally together again. But then this is not a film that compromises on integrity or blinds itself to the effect of love on those who do not have it.

The third scene that stands out vividly in my memory is when Ennis is in Jack’s boyhood home and discovers the bloodstained shirts hidden in the closet. The scene is perfectly complemented a short while later in the film’s closing scene, when Ennis, in tears, carefully hangs the shirts in his own closet and tenderly straightens the photograph of Brokeback Mountain on the inside of the closet door. It’s made doubly poignant by two deaths, a fictional one in the film and that of Ledger.

This is definitely a film that needs to be watched several times to fully appreciate the subtleties in its shades and tones. I loved the cinematography, and the juxtaposing of the breathtaking landscape of the mountain, an enduring icon of freedom and release, with the stifling, small-town spaces and sensibilities that circumscribe the choices available to the protagonists. Every character is finely etched and portrayed with a stark realism that closes in unashamedly on their demonic warts as well as their angelic wings.

Everything in Ang Lee’s film, from its subject to its own minimalist style, is about restraint. Jake Gyllenhaal is energetic and charming at every step as the rather endearing Jack, who handles the restraints he must force upon his life by dreaming of a different life with the person he loves. Ennis is restraint itself. Ledger’s performance defies any attempt at a dispassionate critique. The rare moments at which Ennis lets his emotions show are truly unforgettable, with one of the highlights of the film being the scene in which he breaks down in Jack’s arms at their final meeting on Brokeback Mountain. The soundtrack is to die for, with tracks like Willie Nelson’s ‘He was my friend’ and Teddy Thompson’s ‘I don’t want to say goodbye’ perfectly evoking the spirit of the film.

Ennis: We can get together... once in a while, way the hell out in the middle of nowhere, but...
Jack: Once in a while? Every four fucking years?
Ennis: If you can't fix it, Jack, you gotta stand it.
Jack: For how long?
Ennis: For as long as we can ride it. There ain't no reins on this one.


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