In film school, 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 whonfall 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 year. 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 138 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 coule 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.
I must admit I was nervous to watch 'Brokeback Mountain' again for this HD DVD review. 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, but emboldened into believing that our society can, at last, rise above them.
'Brokeback Mountain' hits HD DVD with some high expectations, as even the film's most ardent detractors showered the film with praise for its beautiful visuals and expert cinematography. I'm happy to report that I, for one, was not disappointed. Presented in 1.85:1 widescreen and 1080p/VC-1 video, this is a gorgeous presentation that suitably captures the movie's earthy, film-like texture and grace.
According to Universal a new master has not been struck for this HD DVD release, but the film is only a year old and the source looks great anyway. Sure, there is a bit of grain throughout, that's only natural since -- yes, folks -- 'Brokeback Mountain' was actually shot on film (how old fashioned!). The grain is not intrusive, and for me adds to the experience by giving it a touch more grit. Colors are terrific, 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, and a quick compare of a few scenes with the standard-def DVD release (a new two-disc special is being released concurrently with the HD DVD) reveals some noticeable improvements. 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.
My only complaint with this transfer is that there can be a bit of edginess to some images. 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. Edge enhancement is never truly severe, but it was still enough of an irritant that it leads me to knock 'Brokeback Mountain' down half a peg from being a true five-star transfer.
Presented in Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround (encoded at 1.5mbps), 'Brokeback Mountain' sounds very nice. Of course, it is a quiet film, with long scenes where nothing much is heard on the soundtrack. Yet the film does have very effective sound design, so the improvements afforded by the higher-resolution audio of HD DVD are still noticeable.
Much of 'Brokeback' is 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). Gustavo Santaolalla's minimalist, largely acoustic score is also a highlight. It has a rich, pleasing tone, and the low bass, though strong, is 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. Ultimately, while 'Brokeback Mountain' on HD DVD doesn't have a lot of aural pizzazz, it does seem to just about perfectly reproduce the intended subtle style of the soundtrack. So I give it an enthusiastic four stars.
In an effort to capitalize on its Oscar buzz, 'Brokeback Mountain' was rush-released to standard-def DVD last year 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.
And while I'd be the first in line for a truly lavish special edition of 'Brokeback Mountain,' I can understand how not enough time has really passed since the film's original release to be able to accurately speak to the movie's "legacy," as special editions so often do. Of course, that isn't stopping Universal from milking the "I wish I knew how to quit you" bandwagon with a second, only slightly improved "Collector's Edition" of 'Brokeback,' less than a year after the first version. Hitting standard-def DVD and HD DVD simultaneously, there really isn't much new here to justify the double dip.
With still no audio commentary, deleted scenes or substantial making-of footage offered, only three new (but slim) featurettes are the highlights. Perhaps the most relevant is the 14-minute "A Groundbreaking Success." The usual assortment of film critics and historians are trotted out to proclaim 'Brokeback' a classic, as well as what looks comments new and old from cast and crew (the Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal chats seem fresh, while Ang Lee's interview in particular appears dated). Unfortunately, at only 14 minutes, this barely scratches the surface. I recently read interviews with Ledger and Gyllenhaal, both of whom say they still get letters from fans whose lives were changed by the film. Where is this kind of emotional material? How about some genuinely insightful perspective on how 'Brokeback' has influenced the political landscape for gays and lesbians in America? Or the backlash against the film? 'Brokeback Mountain' is the kind of hot-button movie tailor-made for a substantial documentary, but sadly, this isn't it.
Next we have "Music from the Mountain," which is a nice 11-minute look at the making of the film's score, although I only really liked it because of the vibrant personality of composer Gustavo Santaolalla. And the guy did, after all, win an Oscar, so he certainly deserves his own featurette.
Finally, "Impressions from the Film" is total fluff -- a nearly 3-minute montage of movie stills over excerpts from Santaolalla's score. How about a real still gallery, with never-before-seen production and publicity photos? Maybe Universal is saving that for the next special edition?
The remaining extras are all from the first 'Brokeback' release and will already be familiar (i.e., boring) to fans. "Directing from the Heart: Ang Lee" (8 minutes), "From Script to Screen: Interviews with Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana" (10 minutes) and "On Being a Cowboy" (6 minutes) are pretty good, but were clearly produced before the film was released and offer no perspective on the film's impact. A bonus is that even supporting cast are interviewed, including Randy Quaid, Linda Cardellini and Anne Hathaway. This fluff might be fairly interesting if you'd never heard anything about 'Brokeback Mountain,' but it's just a yawner otherwise.
Finally, there is the Logo television special "Sharing the Story: The Making of 'Brokeback Mountain,'" which runs 22 minutes. This, too, has been played so incessantly on cable that it's now yawn-inducing. More interviews with all the cast & crew and plenty of on-set footage make it a good little TV doc on its own terms, but this is old news if you've already seen it on TV, or on the original DVD release.
Once again, apparently Universal can't be bothered with little things like a theatrical trailer or TV spots. So that's it for the extras.
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 first-ever HD DVD release definitely has its high points. Both the transfer and soundtrack are excellent, but the extras are severely lacking. Perhaps the film just needs a few more years to marinate before a truly special retrospective edition can be created. In the meantime, this HD DVD certainly does the job where it matters most.
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.