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Brokeback Mountain’ review

Brian Doxtader | Wednesday, February 8, 2006

The word “masterpiece” is not one to be thrown around lightly. In any given year, there are probably 20 good films, ten great ones and one or two truly great ones.

Yet masterpieces are rare. They only come around once every few years but remain when other films fade. One of the chief indicators of a masterpiece is its ability to get under the skin and linger. The merits of such a film and its indelibility become increasingly apparent upon later reflection. Only a few films come immediately to mind in this category: Scorsese’s “Raging Bull,” Godard’s “Le Mepris,” Bergman’s “Smultronstället.”

“Brokeback Mountain,” Ang Lee’s exquisite new picture, can be added to that list. Told with an unerringly perceptive eye and a nuanced grasp of beauty, it is one of the finest pictures of year … even if it doesn’t seem so at first.

The film is about two ranchers, Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal), who meet while working together on Brokeback Mountain. Their initially platonic relationship turns physical, but the two part and go on with their lives. Both of them get married and have children but eventually start meeting again, and their relationship starts to put a strain on their lives.

The acting is quite good throughout, with notable turns coming from Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway as the confused wives of the two men. But the film is controlled from the first to the last frame by Ledger, whose brave, soulful performance is the picture’s beating, bleeding heart. His portrayal of the taciturn cowboy Ennis depends on nuanced expression and body language, providing a perfect foil to Gyllenhaal’s more energetic and outspoken Jack Twist.

Yet, like everything else in the picture, Ledger’s performance is quietly low key, preferring true substance over style. This includes the much maligned script, which has been endlessly parodied. Most of the screenplay is actually quite good and not as overdramatic as might be expected. To be fair, there is a clunker or two, but the generally understated nature of the dialogue (and the great acting) helps overcome the relatively minor flaws.

While “Brokeback Mountain” seems startlingly unpretentious for a movie about homosexual cowboys, closer reflection reveals that it’s not really about this at all. It’s a simple, tragic story about two men in love. Ennis is a man torn by his affection for Jack and his inability to open up emotionally. As “Brokeback Mountain” reached its conclusion, it seemed impossible for the film to end satisfyingly. Yet, the final scene, beautiful, haunting and perfect, is one of the finest curtain calls in the history of cinema.

Ang Lee has always been a director of great courage and conviction, but rarely have his artsy tendencies fit a picture as strong as “Brokeback Mountain.” He elevates some scenes (particularly a masterful scene in which Ennis fights another man during a fireworks show) and in others, just lets the actors go to work. He knows he has a great film and lends an appropriate touch. If Heath Ledger is the heart of “Brokeback Mountain,” then Ang Lee, with his eye for composition and feel for camera movement, is the film’s mind and soul.

“Brokeback Mountain” is so perfect in tone and sincerity that audiences might not realize just how good it really is, which would really be a shame because it’s not just good. It’s that rare film that achieves true greatness. It’s the best picture of the year and more than that, an enduring classic … and a masterpiece for sure.