''Brokeback Mountain'': 2005's most penetrating film, or an overrated snooze? Two EW staffers debate

Credit: Brokeback Mountain: Kimberly French
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Rasslin’ over ”Brokeback Mountain”

Timothy Gunatilaka Hi, Michelle. It took me a while to understand why, ultimately, I disliked Brokeback Mountain. I didn’t come close to crying, and the ending left me cold. To quote Hanson: Where’s the love? The film forces us to take Jack and Ennis’ feelings for granted, but there’s actually little reason for us to lend any credence to this romance. In their first meeting, the awkwardness of the stilted chatter is only rescued by our foreknowledge of their intimate closeness. I’d argue that the uselessness of this opening sequence rivals that of some teen slasher flick’s limp beginning. We can patiently withstand this throwaway footage only because we know what’s going to happen.

Michelle Kung Oh, Tim. Of course they’re awkward — they’re stoic sheepherders feeling the first pangs of post-adolescent love! I totally disagree with you, in that I think Ang Lee sets up a very believable romance. In the gorgeously sparse opening scene, we watch Ennis and Jack dance a silent and dusty pas de deux with their eyes and expressions. The hot man-on-man action that comes later is bonus.

TG Ha. I think if there actually was hot man-on-man action (or, for that matter, any action), I’d be more forgiving. But this is a gay love story where the relationship stays in the closet, closed even to the audience. There’s no build-up to romance, no initial longing or pining. That first time, they just randomly have sex; the relationship seems more about physicality and boredom than anything else. Given what we see on screen, or moreover, what we don’t see, Ennis could have just as arbitrarily sated himself with a sheep. Perhaps, requesting explicit peeks into the passion between the two men is too much to ask (meanwhile, Princess Diaries‘ Anne Hathaway is gratuitously topless).

MK No longing and pining? Wait, were we watching the same movie? First, any scene with Gustavo Santaolalla’s haunting, acoustic-guitar-based score instantly elevates the emotional tension of the moment. And what about the nestled shirt imagery at the end, when Ennis finally discovers that the flannel he thought he’d lost so many summers ago was actually stolen by Jack and preserved in his closet, arranged in a tender embrace their tragic owners could never openly enjoy? Are you made of stone? Tears, big salty tears, I tell you!

TG But it’s a wobbly foundation leading to the devastation of those moments. The oft-quoted ”I wish I could quit you” climax further shakes this unsteady base. Jack complains to Ennis about how he visits Mexico for some physical affection, given how sporadic their ”high-altitude f—ing” is. Sure, Jack has grounds to complain that his boyfriend won’t find time for him, but to reduce their relationship to such carnal vulgarity belies true love.

MK Um, yeah, but they’re dudes. And cowboys. Somehow, I’d believe their relationship less if they sat around mooning the beauty of each other’s eyes and writing each other poems about their feelings.

TG Actually, I think a movie about two guys mooning and snogging at a campfire does exist: Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho. So is Brokeback truly the filmic revolution that so many (including many here at EW) claim it is? This isn’t exactly new territory. What about the Oscar props already given to another cowboy romance-tragedy, Boys Don’t Cry, and John Schlesinger’s meditative lovers’ merry-go-round, Sunday Bloody Sunday, from way back in 1971?

MK Yes, but Brokeback is working on a much bigger scale. My Own Private Idaho grossed only about $6 million, and showed on only 98 screens. It’s quite a different thing to introduce a controversial theme in a movie that’s playing in hundreds of mainstream theaters across the country.

TG Indeed, the mainstream deserves a film offering an honest insight into same-sex relations. But unfortunately, Brokeback Mountain is not it. My sad suspicion is that people are responding because this movie stars two of Hollywood’s alpha males (which Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix were certainly not). If openly homosexual actors starred, this film would have been lost in obscurity next to every other forgotten title in the queer-cinema aisle of your independent video store. Look at the lame age makeup and gray dye jobs. It’s almost as if the filmmakers were too afraid to taint the attractiveness (and, therefore, box office appeal?) of their comely cast to really delve into the situation. You want society to better see the reality of gay love? Show me two overweight, balding men embracing. I suppose this is a problem with love stories of any sexuality, but how many aging cowboys do you know who are so svelte?

MK Okay, touché on the makeup. Anne Hathaway’s wigmaker clearly had some sort of vendetta against the actress — her flipped-out platinum ‘do is even scarier than Jake’s ”look ma, I’m a man” mustache. But the story of the film spans decades — which is exactly what makes it so poignant and agonizing. To bastardize Annie Proulx’s other most memorable line: Since you can’t fix the film, Tim, you’ll just have to stand it.

Brokeback Mountain

  • Movie
  • R
  • 134 minutes
  • Ang Lee