I had really mixed thoughts going into this movie. On one hand, the previews made it look fantastic, and it's based on an amazing short story. Also, the screenplay was done by the short story's author, the brilliant E. Annie Proulx, and western author extraordinaire Larry McMurtry. On the other hand, no matter how many good films he has lucked into and how brilliant everyone else says he is, I've never been a fan of Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko, The Good Girl). And Heath Ledger has never been, to my mind, anything more than a putz (A Knight's Tale, The Brothers Grimm). And then there was Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) - great director, sure, but for an American western love story? I was really, really trepidatious about both the direction and the acting.
I was so, so wrong.
Ang Lee's direction is spot-on. Nothing is wasted, nothing is overdone. Jake Gyllenhaal is great. But the real gem, the thing that takes this from an incredible movie to a best ever movie, is Heath Ledger. Who knew he was hiding all this talent?
From my study of movies, it is damn difficult to play a decent cowboy. Almost inevitably you end up some dumbass Clint Eastwood movie cowboy bullshit, with barely any resemblance to the real thing. Even people who are actually from the American west can't do it. So how is it that an Australian pretty boy and an L.A. pretty boy played the best cowboys I've seen on screen in forever? They just got it right, especially Ledger. The quietness, the speech patterns, the posture. I watched this movie and it felt like home.
Another high point was the scenery. Though it was filmed largely in Canada, the film looked like the west to me, and it was beautifully shot, with no scenery overkill. Ang Lee and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Frida, 21 Grams) let the scenery play it's own role, another quiet character in the film, and it worked beautifully.
So far we've got excellent script, excellent acting, excellent direction, and excellent cinematography. What are we missing? Oh, music? Well, the soundtrack is to die for, including original music by Gustavo Santaolalla (21 Grams, The Motorcycle Diaries) and a fantastic country cross-section (the use of Willie Nelson's "He Was a Friend of Mine" during the closing credits just about did me in). I'll likely buy the soundtrack.
Even the costumes (done by Marit Allen, who also worked on Dead Man and Eyes Wide Shut) are perfect. Like the actors faces and pickup trucks, the trace the path from early 1960s cowboys to early 1980s cowboys without you realizing they're doing it. It's a beautiful thing.
Brokeback Mountain is, quite honestly, the best movie I've seen in several years. In the past few months I've seen a number of films that were quite good (Walk the Line, Capote, Good Night and Good Luck.), but Brokeback Mountain blows them all away. I hope it sweeps the awards ceremonies and I hope it's the beginning of more real roles for Heath Ledger. Even if he never makes another film, though, he should be proud of what he did in this one.