I went to film school, and there they teach you that there are two kinds of love stories. The first is about two opposite individuals who, after a series of humorous mishaps and misadventures, realize they are destined to be together. The second is the tale of two intertwined lovers who fall truly, madly, deeply for one another from the get-go, but circumstances and dark forces conspire to keep them apart. The former are usually romantic comedies, while the latter heart-wrenching dramas destined to win Oscars. 'Brokeback Mountain' falls squarely into the second category. But instead of icebergs or a terminal disease standing in the way of our doomed lovers, it is something far more insidious, and intangible. The social prejudices that rip through the foundation of 'Brokeback Mountain' turn love itself into the destroyer, a kind so forbidden that even speaking its very name is a moral transgression of the worst kind imaginable.
The story of 'Brokeback Mountain' is by now familiar to all except those who have been living under a rock for the past few years. It is sometime in the early '60s, and ranch hands Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) take a job herding sheep one winter up on Brokeback Mountain. Completely bewildering (even to themselves), the natural bonding of men in close quarters leads to something more passionate -- and physical. There is little doubt in the minds of either Ennis or Jack that whatever happened up on the mountain, will stay on the mountain. Over the next dozen-odd years, they will lead "conventional" lives: marrying, having children, and assimilating into a society that doesn't even have a word for what "they are." But every so often, they will visit Brokeback Mountain, under the guise of old friends in for a little camping -- but let's just say they don't bring back a lot of fish. Inevitably, their repressed love exerts such a powerful need to declare itself that cracks will begin to form in their facade, to the point of tearing the fabric of their lives apart. I suppose at this point it is no spoiler to say that all does not end well.
There are many theories why 'Brokeback' broke out so big, but I don't think there is one clear answer. I do feel that essential to its success is the fact that this is the first "gay" movie to never actually utter the word. 'Brokeback Mountain' is not "about" an issue or a social problem, nor is it an R-rated Afterschool Special. It is the only movie I have ever seen -- mainstream or otherwise -- that simply accepts its character's orientations as fact. Jack and Ennis simply are. This allows the film to explore their stories, their feelings, and the consequences of their decisions, free of silly moralizing, political positions or well-meaning (though often condescending) platitudes. Which is why 'Brokeback Mountain' proved not only so controversial, but dangerous to the long-cherished beliefs of those of a more conservative bent. Polemics are easy to dismiss; stories about three-dimensional people that we come to understand, empathize with and care for over the course of 134 minutes are not.
On a purely cinematic level, 'Brokeback Mountain' never seems to take a wrong step. Here is an example of a filmmaking team firing on all cylinders. Every aspect of the production excels, yet does not overpower the whole -- the writing, the direction, the cinematography, the performances, the score and on down the line. And that's really saying something, when you consider that 'Brokeback' could be the career best for all involved. Director Ang Lee, who took home an Oscar for 'Brokeback,' was the perfect choice to portray a story about characters who can't address their feelings. 'Sense & Sensibility,' 'The Ice Storm,' 'The Wedding Banquet,' even 'Hulk' -- they are all strands of the same thematic thread, but never has Lee evoked the tortures of repressed passions as beautifully as in 'Brokeback.' The actors are also, dare I say, revelations. Yes, that is an overused critical phrase, but few could have ever expected such a level of subtlety, perception and restraint from Ledger and Gyllenhaal. Not to mention fellow Oscar nominee Michelle Williams (forever erasing any memory of 'Dawson's Creek'), and Anne Hathaway, who with one immensely powerful last scene, facilitates a whole new understanding of the film with just a flitter of the eye and a few simple pauses between words. Finally, we can't forget screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, who will likely never be able to write another such perfectly modulated, perceptive script as this.
If anyone wonders whether 'Brokeback Mountain,' after all the hype, will stand the test of time, it is worth revisiting on this Blu-ray. I first saw the film back in the late summer of 2005, far before it hit theaters and became such a cultural touchstone. I was blown away by the quiet power of the film, its level of astute craftsmanship, and the terrific performances. I was also astonished that though the film never has that "one big scene" expected in a tearjerker -- the 'Love Story' death-bed moment, if you will -- I couldn't stop thinking about the film for days. But now I had to wonder, would 'Brokeback' hold up? Indeed, it does. Long after the endless parade of lame "gay cowboy" jokes and pointless bickering about awards tallies are over, I think the film will easily stand on its own as a landmark cinematic achievement. 'Brokeback Mountain' will last because it is about not about issues, but the human condition itself. It leaves us both haunted by the prejudices that doomed the lovers of Brokeback Mountain, and emboldened into believing that our society can, at last, rise above them.
'Brokeback Mountain' on Blu-ray trails the HD DVD release by a couple of years, but packs no new surprises. The film is again presented in 1.85:1 widescreen and 1080p/VC-1 video, and I could not detect any difference in the transfers. In general, this is lovely and occasionally even gorgeous presentation that suitably captures the movie's earthy, film-like texture
No, this is not a pristine presentation. There is grain throughout, but I didn't find it intrusive; rather, it adds to the experience by giving the movie a touch more grit. Colors are quite good, from the lush greens of the mountain countryside to the vivid blues and reds of the oft-cited fireworks shot used in much of the promotion for the film. Yes, hues are a bit more subtle and natural than most modern films, but colors remain stable and clean, and fleshtones lovely. Depth and detail are also excellent, particularly compared to the previous standard DVD edition. The early scenes as Jack and Ennis first meet up on the mountain are more textured and three-dimensional. Close-ups are also improved, and I could see every strand of Anne Hathaway's ever-more-hilarious hairstyles as the movie progresses.
Unfortunately, this transfer still suffers from some DNR, and edge enhancement. This is best exemplified by a low shot early on of Ennis on a horse, silhouetted against the sky, where there is some slight ringing around the most contrasted part of the image. Not severe, but still enough of an irritant that it leads me to knock 'Brokeback Mountain' down half a peg from being a genuine reference-quality, five-star transfer.
Universal improves upon the Dolby Digital-Plus mix on the HD DVD by giving 'Brokeback Mountain' the DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround (48kHz/24-bit) treatment on Blu-ray. This is restrained mix, but as smooth and warm a presentation of the material that is likely possible.
Much of 'Brokeback Mountain' remains front-heavy and dialogue-driven. It is always the most prominent feature of the mix, and sounds natural and well balanced. Even Heath Ledger's lowest mumbles are usually discernible (at least at a decent volume). Even more of a stand-out in DTS-MA is Gustavo Santaolalla's minimalist, largely acoustic score. It has a rich, pleasing tone, and the subtle use of score bleed adds a haunting and melancholic quality. Low bass remains strong, if never overpowering.
Surround use is subdued as you might expect, yet atmospherics are much more impressive than they at first appear. For example, in the key scene near the end of the film as Ennis visits the Jack's parents, there is a low, almost whispery sound of the outside wind that fills the rear channels. Moments like this are eerie, haunting and highly effective. Also more active is the "fireworks" scene with Ennis, and a couple of rodeo and bar scenes. Ultimately, 'Brokeback Mountain' on Blu-ray still doesn't really overwhelm or pummel, but faithfully replicates the subtle style of the soundtrack.
In an effort to capitalize on its Oscar buzz, 'Brokeback Mountain' was rush-released to standard-def DVD only a week or two after the Academy Awards. That release was fine, but it lacked any substantial extras aside from a few fluffy featurettes. Next came a second, but only slightly improved, "Collector's Edition" of 'Brokeback Mountain' (on two-disc DVD and HD DVD versions), less than a year after the first release.
Unfortunately, the second time was hardly the charm, and I continue to be underwhelmed watching these supplements again on Blu-ray. With still no audio commentary, deleted scenes or substantial making-of footage offered, only three new (but slim) featurettes are the highlights. All of the materials from the previous DVD and HD DVD versions are here, but it still feels lacking. (Video is a mix of 1080 and 480 sources.)
I'm happy to say that 'Brokeback Mountain' has survived the avalanche of hype, awards nonsense and backlash to survive as a moving, impeccably crafted, landmark motion picture. It really is a masterpiece of subtlety and restraint, and one that seems to only grow in power with repeated viewings. This Blu-ray essentially replicates the previous HD DVD, with very fine video and a decent, if underwhelming, selection of extras. Only the audio gets a true upgrade. Still, 'Brokeback Mountain' is a modern touchstone, and this Blu-ray delivers on the bottom line.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.