As much as filmgoers seem to agree that “Crash” was an undeserving Best Picture winner over “Brokeback Mountain,” it feels like everyone has forgotten why “Brokeback” — an epic still-life of sexual repression in the deep West — actually ruled. I remember Richard Roeper, a film critic I usually love and agree with, saying that “Brokeback Mountain” is “a classic love story” regardless of the gayness at the film's center. Can't say I know any other straight romance complicated by emotionally battered wives, brutal homophobia, and the fatalism of two conflicted, secretive lovers who call their bond “a goddam bitch of an unsatisfactory situation.” Yes, we'd seen forbidden love tales prior to the debut of “Brokeback Mountain” in 2005, but we hadn't seen a more vivid, IMAX-sized portrait of a specifically gay and tragic affair. For that reason it remains one of a kind and — somehow — underrated.
The synopsis is simple: Two twangy Wyoming ranchers take a break from herding sheep to realize they're living a lie. Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) strike up an affair during a job on picturesque Brokeback Mountain, and their wives (Anne Hathaway for Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams for Ledger) can't begin to understand, let alone cope with, their secretive bond. The movie follows Jack and Ennis' agonizing attempts to maintain quaint home lives as they reconcile what their Brokeback experience meant and means. You could argue that they're bisexual characters, but their devastating reunions indicate some acknowledgement of how overwhelming their taboo desires are.
It's been ten years since “Brokeback” throttled us. Here are just a few reasons to watch it again.
1. It's still Jake Gyllenhaal's best performance.
I was pleased that Gyllenhaal picked up an Oscar nomination here. Jack's blend of naivete and savviness is stunning: Note how Jack comforts Ennis as they get intimate for the first time with whispers of “I'm sorry.” As much as their romance is real, Jack must wheedle Ennis to make the affair happen. It's interesting that “I wish I knew how to quit you” is the lasting pop culture hallmark from this movie; for my money, Gyllenhaal's best moment is the grim, almost childlike way he opines, “Sometimes I miss you so much I can hardly stand it.” It's almost out of nowhere. That uncomfortable vulnerability is at the heart of the movie.
2. It's Heath Ledger's most intriguing performance.
I get anxious just thinking about Ennis Del Mar — his sullenness, his dim understanding of his own desires, his stilted mumbling, and worst of all the shocking way he treats his hapless wife Alma. Ledger made the brilliant choice to manifest Ennis' repression in the form of a tightly clenched jaw. Has any character in cinematic history appeared to struggle as much when discussing his feelings as Ennis Del Mar? His words sound like they're stuck under his Adam's Apple.
3. The music is sensational
We can talk about Gustavo Santaolalla's beautiful and instantly recognizable score all day, but let's also discuss the canny way “Brokeback Mountain” rebrands famous country hits. During one scene, Linda Ronstadt's “It's So Easy” plays on a jukebox. It's a rollicking pop jam until you remember — oh, right — it's exactly what this movie is all about: “People tell me love's for fools / Here I go breaking all the rules.” Yikes! You wonder how Jack and Ennis could end up in such dire straits, but the answer is… it's so doggone easy. The Willie Nelson cover of “He Was A Friend of Mine” is equally heartbreaking, and “King of the Road” comes back as a new, grim ode to loneliness.
4. It features Anne Hathaway's first great performance.
To be honest, I can't think of an Anne Hathaway performance I've disliked. I guess some people dislike Anne in general, but that shouldn't fool anyone into believing she's less than a stellar actress. From Genovia to Gotham, she's been gamely charismatic and fetching. As Jack's rodeo-riding wife Lureen in “Brokeback,” she's bubbly and saucy in a way that should be irresistible to Jack. Her core self-possession never fades, but in her final scene in the movie, we see how Lureen has hardened over time. Her arc is subtle but serious, and I think it ranks among Hathaway's most promising performances.
5. Michelle Williams is so good, it's unbearable.
The look on Alma's face when she, shall we say, confronts Ennis about whether he's really been fishing on those weeklong trips away is shocking. “Jack Twist? Jack Nasty!” That's not even clever, but the clarity of what she's saying pierces you.
6. It doesn't change the original story at all.
At some point Annie Proulx's short story “Brokeback Mountain” might've seemed too brief to inspire such a massive project, but the film incorporates almost every scenic description and line of dialogue from the original text. Proulx herself noted, “I may be the first writer in America to have a piece of writing make its way to the screen whole and entire. And, when I saw the film for the first time, I was astonished that the characters of Jack and Ennis came surging into my mind again.” The lesson we get here is clear: We need to adapt more short stories into feature films.
7. The film's final moment is unforgettable.
After the movie's romance has fizzled and innocuous youthfulness has given way to austere, hard maturity, the movie delivers one final punch with Ennis' closing line. Three simple words — and not those three simple words — riddle you. It hurts, and it's accompanied by a burst of the movie's score, which issues forth like a deluge. You feel like you've been holding back your own pangs of despair for two hours and fourteen minutes; suddenly they're out in front of you, clear as the view on a breezy Wyoming apex. Ten years after we first watched “Brokeback Mountain,” it remains a searing depiction of a love that will never grow old.