The Ultimate Brokeback Mountain Guide: Reviews -- at DaveCullen.com
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The Ultimate Brokeback Guide
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Reviews and Commentary on Gay and Bisexual Men in Entertainment and the Media

Reviews of Brokeback Mountain have been coming fast and furious since the first week in December 2005. I've quoted from some of the key reviews, listed all reviews I'm come across and, of course, compiled the reviewer’s Hall of Shame. Check out the critics awards too. You’ll also find related articles in the cultural and social commentary.

If you find a new review, please post it in the discussion forum.

Keep up-to-date on NPR's Brokeback commentary and reviews...

Selected Reviews & Commentary

Something transformational is happening because of this movie. I'm not just talking about possibly many hearts and minds being changed among the straights that see this movie. Something deeper and more personal is also happening for many, and I am speaking as a gay man here. Friend after friend is haunted by this movie. In a group of friends, we repeatedly talk about how much this film is deeply affecting us personally. So much grief, so much loss, so much recognition. I and so many people will be forever grateful to Ledger and Gyllenhaal because they fulfilled their mission as actors in this movie.

Three times I saw Brokeback Mountain: Once to see it; once to take two teen stepdaughters to see it; and once to watch everyone around me see it. And when the lights came up for the third time, to reveal for the third time faces of all ages and races streaked with tears, then I knew. This movie isn't about the life-defining sexual relationship that two men didn't get to keep. This is about the life-defining love that none of us got to keep. We've been focusing on the wrong body part, folks. This film ends focusing on two entwined shirts because of the organ that rests just beneath them — the human heart, and the space in it that each of us reserves for our own love that never grows old.

At first Brokeback Mountain annoyed me. I was grumbling as my boyfriend and I left the crowded screening at Westgate cinema. "It's a gay movie for straight people," I griped about the film, which could win eight Oscars on Sunday. But if the film irked me so, why, as I thought back on it days later, did I find myself weeping? I think my mind had been playing tricks on me -- that my initially smug reaction was simply masking the pain of recognition. Like Ennis and Jack, I have lived in the closet, and my visceral impatience with the film reminds me of how I felt about myself on my best days in the closet: impatient.

It's important to keep several things in mind: "Brokeback Mountain" is not a fairytale love story (pun intended) in which the lovers ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after. It's a tragic romance in which no one wins. The accolades for the actors, however well deserved, cannot alter the fact that there is an unmistakable tinge of minstrelry here, when gay actors are locked into the closet by their own ambitions and the paranoia of the industry, and audiences must be firmly assured of the heterosexual credentials of those playing gay for pay. Hollywood and much of the media may be awash in liberal self-congratulation, but they -- and we -- are also soaking in the familiar hypocrisy of homophobia.

Both narratively and visually, Brokeback Mountain is a tragedy about the specifically gay phenomenon of the "closet"—about the disastrous emotional and moral consequences of erotic self-repression and of the social intolerance that first causes and then exacerbates it. What love story there is occurs early on in the film, and briefly: a summer's idyll herding sheep on a Wyoming mountain, during which two lonely youths, taciturn Ennis and high-spirited Jack, fall into bed, and then in love, with each other. The sole visual representation of their happiness in love is a single brief shot of the two shirtless youths horsing arousignificantly—silent, voiceless.... But those lovers, however star-crossed, never despise themselves. As Brokeback makes so eloquently clear, the tragedy of gay lovers like Ennis and Jack is only secondarily a social tragedy. Their tragedy, which starts well before the lovers ever meet, is primarily a psychological tragedy, a tragedy of psyches scarred from the very first stirrings of an erotic desire which the world around them—beginning in earliest childhood, in the bosom of their families, as Ennis's grim flashback is meant to remind us—represents as unhealthy, hateful, and deadly. Romeo and Juliet (and we) may hate the outside world, the Capulets and Montagues, may hate Verona; but because they learn to hate homosexuality so early on, young people with homosexual impulses more often than not grow up hating themselves: they believe that there's something wrong with themsewrong with society.

I've been surprised by "Brokeback" phobia, which I've heard from straight male friends, relatives, this nation's president, guys in my pickup basketball game and even two dudes sitting behind me during a screening of "BloodRayne" -- a movie approximately 350 times harder to watch than "Brokeback Mountain." I recently heard a prominent local meteorologist sharing "Brokeback" hesitation with members of the "KNBR Morning Show," who have since committed themselves on air to see the movie together. It's a strange phobia, considering that "Brokeback Mountain" may be the best date movie to come along in years. You have the potential to look so sensitive that you can probably get her to pay for the movie and a trip to Red Lobster. Add a few tears near the ending (just think about that scene in "Rudy" where underdog Rudy leads the Notre Dame Irish on the field), and you might be surprised where the evening takes you. Think of "Brokeback Mountain" as a challenge -- like lowering your golf handicap, or getting a phone number from a stripper. Just five easy steps toward a more civilized future..."

Lee cares deeply enough for each of these characters to allow his or her humanity to emerge. And that's as it should be, really, as the film is about the most human of all impulses, and how it once struck an unlikely pair in an unlikely place at an unlikely time, and how it determined the rest of their lives by its absence or, more precisely, its fleeting recurrence. Beautiful, poetic, mournful, at once rich and spare, "Brokeback Mountain" takes a daring conceit and creates of it an overwhelming work of art that should speak to anyone capable of love.

Liberals will see the film as a beacon of tolerance, a study of the cruel pathologies of intolerance, a plea for acceptance for the humane principle that love between consenting adults, no matter their gender or orientation, should be celebrated. Conservatives will see the liberal tyranny of an entertainment culture forcing elitist "progressive values" on the reluctant red-state millions and, in the process, staining the purity of the most American of good ol' American genres, the western, home of Duke Wayne, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Boys, boys, boys, settle down. Put them shootin' irons away. It's only a movie. But the question remains: Does "Brokeback Mountain" have an agenda?

We love our love stories. The only love stories we love more are the ones where the lovers are kept apart by forces beyond their control, such as family (“Romeo and Juliet”), class (“Titanic”), or war (“The English Patient”). Anticipation is better than consummation — particularly in drama. Keep the lovers apart! Tease us! Frustrate us! There’s nothing more boring than happy loving couples — in drama or in life. But how to keep the lovers apart? That’s the question for dramatists everywhere. “Brokeback” offers a new take on an old subject. It’s the ultimate forbidden love — because part of the population is ready to kill you for acting on it.

Brokeback Mountain is a western in which only two shots are fired (one missing a wolf, the other hitting an elk). There are a mere three fist fights, all of them designed to embarrass the viewer, and two acts of major violence, brief flashbacks experienced by Ennis dealing with the consequences of homophobia. None the less, the film is a major contribution to our understanding of the western genre. To call it a gay movie would be, if not necessarily misleading, a wholly inadequate way of describing the way it strikes a straight audience. It concludes with a beautifully understated coda followed by Willie Nelson performing Bob Dylan's 'He Was a Friend of Mine' over the final credits. The result is affecting, satisfying, and way this side of conventional sentimentality.

Though unsuprisingly not approving the central relationship in the film, nevertheless this is a frank, honest and often laudatory review, one which, in fairness and respect, should be acknowledged.

"Brokeback Mountain" (Focus), the much publicized "gay cowboy love story" adapted from a New Yorker magazine piece by Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Proulx, turns out to be a serious contemplation on loneliness and connection. The story revolves around two scarred souls: Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) who share a sheepherding assignment on a mountain in Signal, Wyo., in 1963. Ennis is a man of few words; Jack is more open and inviting. The performances are superb. Australian Ledger may be the one to beat at Oscar time, and his Western accent sounds wonderfully authentic. Gyllenhaal is no less accomplished as the seemingly less nuanced Jack, while Williams and Hathaway (the latter, a far cry from "The Princess Diaries," giving her most mature work to date) are very fine. ...the universal themes of love and loss ring true. The film creates characters of flesh and blood - not just the protagonists, but the wives, girlfriends, parents, and children -- who give the film its artful substance.

Thirty years ago, the western was declared dead. John Ford was gone, John Wayne had grown old, and Clint Eastwood had ceased to be the "spaghetti" West's Man With No Name and morphed into Dirty Harry. [But] a story about two gay cowboys? How do you even broach the subject without raucous interference from echoes of the Village People? Read Proulx's story is the answer. Once you have absorbed the bitten-down poetry of her writing, any whiff of irreverence evaporates in the icy Wyoming air. It's a piece located so precisely within the laconic heart of western mythology that you're left with a sense of having been let into two lives which speak poignantly for many more.

In certain events that leave their mark on pop culture, there comes a flashpoint when everyone's talking about the same thing. Call it the Bennifer blitz, the Monica moment, the Janet Jackson distraction. Ground down and fed up by news that matters, Americans lock their vision on a movie-star romance, a sex scandal, a Super Bowl oops as tabloid headlines and talk-show hosts exploit and orchestrate the public's evanescent fervor. In a more benign and constructive way, America is now experiencing the Brokeback breakthrough. Add it all up: Shock value. Curiosity value. Armfuls of awards. A lovely lead performance or two. A film that makes you think, lets you cry. It's no wonder Brokeback broke through.

  • 'Brokeback Mountain' (JERUSALEM POST [reprinted from Washington Post], Ann Hornaday , 19-Jan-2006)

As a tragic evocation of the costs of homophobia - not just to closeted gay people but also to their families and loved ones -Brokeback Mountain is indeed a watershed movie, an airing of taboos and secrets that can only be seen as welcome and deeply humanist. (And, in its depiction of the violence that threatens Jack and Ennis should their relationship come to light, it's a sensitive, empathic homage to those who have died of hatred, including Matthew Shepard, who seems to haunt the production from his Wyoming grave.)

If "Brokeback Mountain" were just about that love story, which culminates in the year's loveliest metaphor, it would be a great, impeccably acted movie. But "Brokeback" also recognizes that when you're afraid to be yourself, it damages every relationship you have. "Brokeback's" compassion extends to the men's parents and their wives, who are placed in impossible positions and who respond with the confusion and hurt you'd expect.

Part of the deep poignancy of this film is that it is a portrait of two men who have never had time to be young, so that the bond between them is this thing which co-exists with a set of responsibilities that they tend to embrace unquestioningly as a form of slavery. Ang Lee has turned his back on razzle dazzle Youth Culture America so decisively that Brokeback Mountain looks like the product of another time. Apart from anything else Ledger and Gyllenhaal are expected to age, in the course of the film, the better part of 20 years and they manage this - in a way the film manages to make look effortless - by the way they are weighed down by the constancy of their sorrows and their unswerving sense of something so central to them that it would be sentimental to call it happiness.

What "Brokeback Mountain" does is show homosexuality in a light not normally seen. On the screen, we see people much like ourselves who struggle with who they are and who they are forced to be. We see the portrayal of the unspoken homosexuals who live among us that are far from the comical portrayal of the flamboyant gay guy that is so typical in our media culture. It is easier to justify the denial of basic equality when you view other relationships as inherently unequal. In order to change, people need to see something similar to themselves in order for them to better understand it. "Brokeback" gives them that something.

Upon entering the nearly packed theatre, I noticed most of the audience were straight young couples. What would the reaction be when the two cowboys kiss? What would my reaction be to the audience reaction? The cowboys kissed – absolute silence in the theatre. As the film progress I could hear muffled sobs. Upon leaving the [theatre] I intentionally eavesdropped on people's conversations. I did not hear a negative comment. Please go see the move....

Lee takes the classic contrast between nature and civilization and uses it in a new way, as an implicit argument that the love between Ennis and Jack is a natural thing subverted by the arbitrary rules and definitions of manhood of their society. This might sound pretentious, and in many other hands it could be, but the beauty of Lee’s technique is its simplicity, its directness and lack of pretense, its ability to suggest without overplaying. He’s assisted by the somber elegance of Gustavo Santaolalla’s guitar-and-fiddle score, which evokes Country-Western music without quite entering its twangy domain and fits the moods Lee creates without overselling them.

Ultimately, once you've actually seen this story unfold, you'll never call it "that gay cowboy movie" again. There have been so-called "gay" movies made in the past that celebrated homosexual lifestyles, reveled in gay relationships and forwarded the cause in plainly rhetorical terms, but Lee's film is not one of those. Rather, the director tells a story about two people who have found love, but don't know what to do or how to deal with it, which is something that anyone gay or straight once did, does, or will eventually deal with in their lives. Brokeback Mountain offers a long-overdue road map into territory often traversed but seldom properly documented - namely, the human heart.

I have received a profound gift. Call me obsessive, but I have seen the movie Brokeback Mountain six times already. It is haunting me like no other movie I can remember. Something transformational is happening because of this movie. I'm not just talking about possibly many hearts and minds being changed among the straights that see this movie. Something deeper and more personal is also happening for many, and I am speaking as a gay man here. Friend after friend is haunted by this movie. In a group of friends, we repeatedly talk about how much this film is deeply affecting us personally. So much grief, so much loss, so much recognition. We call each other in the middle of the day to discuss the waves of emotion that are surfacing even days after seeing the film. It is as if this movie appeared at this point in time in part to facilitate a massive transformational healing among the gay men and others who see it. Why is this healing happening? It is the transformational power of shamanism – the true gift of acting.

Ennis and Jack are unable to control their desires, and the glory and tragedy of Brokeback Mountain is that neither they nor audiences necessarily want them to; like all great, doomed screen romances, Ennis’ and Jack’s love (a word that neither man ever utters) is a force of nature, too powerful to be ignored yet, ultimately, too fragile to survive. Despite the emotional toll their relationship takes on Ennis’ and Jack’s wives and children – and the movie is subtly gut-wrenching in showing how the men’s love, kept secret, makes them treat those who love them horribly – you want desperately for them to find happiness; Brokeback Mountain makes the ineffable mystery of romance come alive in a way that audiences might find themselves quite unprepared for.
Interestingly enough, however, "I love you" is never exchanged in the film. This was skillful direction on Lee's part. The words would be completely unnecessary because it is clear they are in love. Compare a three-word sentence to a lifetime of commitment and passionate love. Now that's unconventional Hollywood melodrama. Love is certainly overused today, both as a statement and a defense. "Brokeback Mountain" is a rare film that has the potential to conquer you. If only you let it.
A freezing night sparks the guilty drama. Jack invites Ennis to share his tent. He places Ennis’s hand on his crotch and they squirm in frantic intimacy. [Later] what makes the split so painful is the way the film plays with real fire: the evasion, the fear of discovery, and rampant homphobia. Randy Quaid is terrific as the sour local boss who accidentally sees far more of the boy s than he is prepared to stomach.
The film begins with a wonderful piece of laconic scene-setting. Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) and Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal) silently wait outside a trailer to sign on for a job: they cautiously glance at each other, stare at the ground, kick a little dirt. You start to wonder about certain signs.... The signs may be evident if you're already habitually inclined to "out" a scene between two handsome men by a campfire, but Lee brilliantly points up the men's reluctance to give themselves away. In an extraordinary shot, Jack hangs his head while Ennis washes naked in the background in a soft-focus blur: we sense that Jack is aware of him, but he in no way registers Ennis's presence, and that speaks more eloquently than any gaze of unbridled desire.”
  • Out West (THE NEW REPUBLIC, Stanley Kaufmann, 08-Jan-2006 for publication in the 16-Jan-2006 edition)
Brokeback Mountain does not contain the slightest suggestion that its purpose is to chronicle a case or a social problem. (It has provoked a blizzard of articles on the subject of cowboy homosexuality, most of them paying little attention to the film's art.) It simply treasures two human beings who, unlikely as we may have thought it for these men, find themselves fixed in a discomfiting yet thorough passion. ...nonetheless they seem secretly fortified by their fate.
"It's easier to hold on to very negative viewpoints or attitudes if all you ever let yourself see of that world is a stereotype you don't like," he* said. "If you were to allow yourself to see two very masculine, straight-looking men in love with each other, it could shake your belief set." So, like it or not, see it or not, "Brokeback Mountain" lays bare our homophobia. It forces us to confront our fears. It dares us once and for all to understand. [*Dr. Robert Davies, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center]
While most gay viewers respond warmly to Brokeback Mountain, it has produced some unexpected reactions among those who aren't gay. Some straight critics have complained that there's not enough steamy sex, a charge they didn't level at Titanic. The critics at several Christian media outlets have, to their great credit, reviewed Ang Lee's film as a film, not as a culture war manifesto, praising it for its artistry and emotional power, even as they took issue with the characters' homosexuality. ...all these abstract arguments overlook the most striking thing about seeing Brokeback Mountain: it makes a lot of people cry. I've never been to a press screening that left more people in tears, myself included.
As Lee's aria of regret nudges past the two-hour mark I thought it was out for the count, but it picks itself up and delivers a surprise double bodyshot whose concerted force will possibly floor you. It got me, first in the casual reunion of Ennis with his teenage daughter (played with tenderness by Kate Mara) and then in an achingly elegiac shot of, no kidding, an old checked shirt, the memory of which tugs a thread from an earlier part of the story. In fact, thinking about it right now, my throat seems to have constricted and my eyes gone all blurry. No, I'll be fine... Just give me a minute, will you?
If I’m making it sound as though Brokeback Mountain is a downer, it’s actually a serious piece of art in which great joy can be taken in witnessing the small-miracle performances of Ledger (so eloquent in his mute despair) and Gyllenhaal (so meticulously agonized by his daily compromises). Ang Lee conveys maddening delirium rendered in the way one man’s eyes gaze at another’s, and then look away, and the looking-away amounts to the murder of two souls as surely as if they’d drawn guns and hit each other in the heart.
This slow and stoic movie, hailed as a gay Western, feels neither gay nor especially Western: it is a study of love under siege.
Ang Lee's unmissable and unforgettable Brokeback Mountain hits you like a shot in the heart. It's a landmark film and a triumph for Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, who bring deep reserves of feeling to this defiantly erotic love story about two Wyoming ranch hands and the external and internal forces that drive them from desire to denial. Directed with piercing intelligence and delicacy by Lee, the film of Annie Proulx's 1997 short story -- the unerring script by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana is a model of literary adaptation -- wears its emotions on its sleeve.
Brokeback Mountain is that rare thing, a big Hollywood weeper with a beautiful ache at its center.
That most chameleonlike of directors, Ang Lee, pulls off yet another surprising left turn in "Brokeback Mountain." An achingly sad tale of two damaged souls whose intimate connection across many years cannot ever be properly resolved, this ostensible gay Western is marked by a heightened degree of sensitivity and tact, as well as an outstanding performance from Heath Ledger.
THE lonesome chill that seeps through Ang Lee's epic western, "Brokeback Mountain," is as bone deep as the movie's heartbreaking story of two cowboys who fall in love almost by accident. It is embedded in the craggy landscape where their idyll begins and ends. It creeps into the farthest corners of the wide-open spaces they share with coyotes, bears and herds of sheep and rises like a stifled cry into the big, empty sky that stretches beyond the horizon.
Every once in a while a film comes along that changes our perceptions so much that cinema history thereafter has to arrange itself around it. Think of Thelma and Louise or Chungking Express, Blow-Up or Orlando - all big films that taught us to look and think and swagger differently. Brokeback Mountain is just such a film. Even for audiences educated by a decade of the New Queer Cinema phenomenon - from Mala Noche and Poison to High Art and Boys Don't Cry - it's a shift in scope and tenor so profound as to signal a new era.

More Reviews & Analysis

The Stinkers, a few Sour Grapes and those who Just Don't Get It

'Alternative' Views

And More...

» THE ULTIMATE BROKEBACK GUIDE