There has never been a film more heartbreaking, more beautiful, and more unforgettable than BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. The tale of two cowboys (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal) who unexpectedly fall in love in a time, the 1960s, place, the American west, as part of an economic class, working class, where such a thing is just not possible. The risk of discovery and the attendant consequences, of which a violent death is entirely possible, makes the wonder of romance and the tragedy it causes soar to even greater heights and to leave an indelible mark on anyone who sees it.
Unfortunately, the DVD release doesn’t have a commentary track. Perhaps because director Ang Lee, who rightly won an Oscar™, is a soft-spoken man of few words, something that comes across in the best of the featurettes, “Directing from the Heart: Ang Lee.” His comments are interspersed with the usual tributes from the cast and crew, all of whom note his attention to detail and his emphasis on the emotional journey of all the characters in the piece. Co-writer/ co-producer Diana Ossana and co-producer James Schamus offer erudite analysis of where BROKEBACK fits into Ang’s overall body of work. And there are some interesting insights into how he coaxes such spare, yet performances from his cast. And there is something sweet about seeing shots of Ang, smiling, obviously enjoying wearing a cowboy hat and jeans jacket to get into the spirit of the place while directing on location in the mountains.
The featurette, “Cowboy Camp” offers a look at how non-cowboy Gyllenhaal was whipped into shape as a rider of horses and unbroken bulls. Whipping Annie Proux’s short story into a feature-length script is the subject of “From Script to Screen: Interviews with Larry McMurty and Diana Ossana” and it includes snippets from others of the cast and crew as well. As a study of how to take a story from the printed page to the visual medium of film, it covers all bases, making the accomplishment of turning 30 pages of fiction into an emotional epic all the more impressive, especially when the characters depicted are emblematic of a laconic culture of few words.
The background material is all well and good, but the film itself is a masterpiece, and one that holds up to repeated viewings, partly because of the performances that are beautifully nuanced, revealing something a little different every time, and because of the emotional landscape as tough and as unforgiving and as exquisite as the rugged west itself.