#345) Brokeback Mountain (2005)


#345) Brokeback Mountain (2005)

OR “The Cowboys in the Band”

Directed by Ang Lee

Written by Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana. Based on the short story by Annie Proulx.

Class of 2018

The Plot: Ranch hands Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal) are hired to herd sheep across Brokeback Mountain in 1963 Wyoming. Over the summer, the two form a close bond, ultimately leading to a sexual relationship. The two men part ways, returning to their heterosexual lifestyles; Ennis marries longtime fiancée Alma (Michelle Williams), Jack marries rodeo star Lureen (Anne Hathaway). Over the next 20 years, Ennis and Jack reconnect every so often to continue exploring their relationship, even as their respective marriages fall apart. It’s an emotionally complex study of human sexuality, set against the rugged toxic masculinity of the American west. But hey, wouldn’t you rather watch an overly manipulative movie about L.A.’s racial tension?

Why It Matters: After spoiling the ending in its plot synopsis, the NFR calls the film “[h]aunting” and “an enduring classic” (yeah, that’s why it’s on the list). Heath Ledger’s performance gets a very descriptive shoutout.

But Does It Really?: “Brokeback Mountain” is the first NFR entry that I witnessed become a classic in real time. It’s one thing for me to grow up with countless films already being designated “classics”, but to watch that happen to a film from my adulthood is quite amazing. In addition to its ongoing impact on queer cinema, “Brokeback” is by its own merits a well-crafted character study lifted by Ang Lee’s delicate direction and wonderfully subtle performances from its four leads. “Crash” may have taken home the Best Picture Oscar, but as the NFR has shown us, “Brokeback” got the real prize in the end.

Shout Outs: No direct references in the movie proper, but the poster’s design was intentionally based on the poster for “Titanic”.

Everybody Gets One: Pretty much everyone except Randy Quaid. “Brokeback Mountain” is currently the most recent film on the NFR and therefore your one stop for Ang Lee, Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway, and all of those sheep.

Seriously, Oscars?: Oh boy, buckle up kids. “Brokeback Mountain” started in limited release, and expanded once the critical praise and awards recognition got going. By the time the 2006 Oscars rolled around, “Brokeback” lead the pack with eight nominations and had won more Best Picture precursor awards than any other movie in history. The film took home well deserved Oscars for Directing, Adapted Screenplay and Original Score. And then, this happened…

Other notes

  • For those of you who stand firm that the 21st century didn’t begin until 2001, “Brokeback Mountain” is the first narrative feature from this century to make the National Film Registry.
  • Just a reminder that Ang Lee’s previous film was 2003’s “Hulk”, an experience so exhausting Lee even considered retiring. Thank goodness “Brokeback” came along.
  • Both Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal are graduates of the James Dean School of Mumbling. What’s the point of only saying 10 words if I can’t hear any of them?
  • I was going to comment on how stunning the landscapes in this movie are, and then I learned that several of these shots were digitally touched up. Damn you, movie magic!
  • So many animals in this film: sheep, horses, a bear; Did PETA members outnumber the crew on this shoot? Apparently the American Humane Association did not…
  • The first half hour or so is a nice gradual build-up to Ennis and Jack’s relationship. There’s a natural restraint on dialogue in their scenes; most of their characterization is conveyed visually.
  • Confession: I’ve never seen “Brokeback Mountain” until now. I didn’t realize you actually see the first sex scene. No dissolve over candles or curtains billowing in the wind for these two?
  • Michelle Williams can do no wrong in my book. My heart always goes out to the women she portrays, and her Alma is no exception. Can’t wait to see her Gwen Verdon.
  • Surely by the time the film hits the late ‘70s Jack and Ennis would have considered moving to San Francisco. Harvey Milk was a thing back then.
  • Near the end of the movie we get a string of then-unknown actors who have since gone on to bigger (and stranger) things: Linda Cardellini, Anna Faris, David Harbour, and…one of the Maras. Kate? Rooney. No, it’s Kate, final answer.
  • Shoutout to Jake Gyllenhaal, who manages to underplay Jack’s emotional outburst. No Oscar-bait hysterics here, he just plays the reality of the scene.
  • “I wish I knew how to quit you” is the best movie line delivered by a character with their back to the camera. Take that, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
  • Anne Hathaway has never done it for me, but I will admit that she nails the final phone call with Ennis. That’s a wealth of emotion with minimal facial movement. I guess Hathaway’s forte is intense, uninterrupted close-ups.
  • My main takeaway from this film is not a surprise: what a loss we all suffered when Heath Ledger died. He is giving a beautifully restrained performance as Ennis; there is so much going on just under the surface of the character. It made me think of all the great Heath Ledger performances we’ll never get.
  • Another “Everybody Gets One”: Willie Nelson & Rufus Wainwright, who both perform songs during the end credits.


  • “Brokeback Mountain” was a turning point for queer cinema, and the last decade has seen an array of gay, bisexual, and/or queer media. Happily, there are too many for me to list here, but I will bring attention to “Call Me By Your Name”, a gay-romance Oscar contender that came and went with none of the controversy “Brokeback” endured under the same circumstances.
  • Speaking of controversy, “Brokeback Mountain” had its share of critics in its day: conservative media pundits, the American Humane Association, even co-star Randy Quaid, who sued the filmmakers for allegedly tricking him into taking a pay cut for the film.
  • “Brokeback” and its subsequent Oscar buzz turned all four of its stars into movie stars/awards contenders. Gyllenhaal, Williams, and Hathaway are still cranking out movies/collecting trophies, and Ledger got his share of posthumous accolades for “The Dark Knight”.
  • “Brokeback” had its moment in the cultural zeitgeist, with everyone spoofing “that gay cowboy movie” and wishing they knew how to quit things. Don’t know if any of it would fly now, but I do have a soft spot for “Brokeback to the Future”.
  • The original short story was adapted into, of all things, an opera in 2014 by Charles Wuorinen. I just don’t understand why two repressed characters would ever break out into song, let alone all the time.
  • Anne Proulx loved the movie, but really hates all the fan fiction she gets sent from male writers who “fix” the story for her. Please stop.
  • And if you want to visit the real Brokeback Mountain, good luck because it doesn’t exist! In reality, Brokeback Mountain is a composite of Mount Lougheed and Moose Mountain in Alberta, Canada.

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