Blu Ray Title: Brokeback Mountain
Disk Release Date: 3/10/2009
Screen format: 1080P high definition widescreen 1.85:1
First theatrical release: 2005
Previous releases on disk: Multiple including original DVD release 4/4/2006, 2 Disk Collectors Edition released day & Date with the 1/23/2007 HD DVD
Director: Ang Lee
Starring: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Linda Cardellini, Anna Farris, Anne Hathaway, Michelle Williams, and Randy Quaid
Sound Formats: English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Spanish and French DTS 5.1
Length: 2 hours 15 minutes
Subtitles: English, Spanish and French
Note that much of this review is based on my original scoring of the initial Brokeback DVD and the HD DVD which followed, but has been updated to reflect the specifics of this BluRay release
In the summer of 1963, sheepherders Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) and Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal) begin a homosexual relationship that spans their next twenty years. Each struggles to fit this secret affair into their family life, careers and other accomplishments. They battle the stigma society places on this kind of relationship, and ultimately have to deal with their own beliefs regarding this forbidden love.
Not surprisingly, the action is very minimal in this film. There are isolated points of activity dealing with the sheepherding lifestyle and a few rodeo scenes, but for the most part this film celebrates the laconic, thoughtful life of simple (and poor) country folk.
Both Ledger and Gyllenhaal hold up admirably dealing with this tough issue, turning in brave performances. Both believably mimic the mannerisms and accents of their characters, which is notable for the fact that Ledger is Australian and Gyllenhaal was born in Los Angeles. Much of their performance is silent, relying on facial expressions to convey sadness, frustration, anger and confusion. The strong supporting cast includes Randy Quaid as their boss Joe Aguirre, Anne Hathaway as the spunky rodeo-girl who marries Twist, and especially noteworthy is the knockout performance by Michelle Williams as Alma Del Mar, the spouse who catches on to Ennis and has to confront having her heart broken and life turned upside down by a gay man in a time when that was almost unheard of.
It’s difficult to review BM without noting it’s main subject matter and long history, both pre and post release. Brokeback is notable as one of the first films, if not the first, to feature a male to male romance as its major raison d'être. It arose as a small film adapted from the New Yorker short story by Annie Proulx and took nearly a decade to find its way to the screen, being first labelled and mocked as ‘The gay cowboy film’. But as more and more viewers came to see it it took on a life of its own, garnering 3 Oscars and a room full of other awards.
While it combines elements of many genres, including western, tragedy, Americana and romance, it is at its heart a simple tale told at a deliberate pace and in a heartrending voice. This is the fourth time I have reviewed this film and I have taken considerable heat each time for not jumping on the bandwagon of adoring fans, both straight and gay alike, who find this to be one of their most beloved films. My opinion has not changed much since my first viewing, I find it to be an amazingly well crafted film created by a group who were tremendously dedicated to helping it find its voice among an audience who weren't ready for it, but it simply does not rise to the level of greatness, for me personally, that others see it in. I hope this does not lead others to pass on it without judging for themselves but it is an honest appraisal of how I felt and continue to feel about it overall.
Sound Quality: 4/5
The musical score was a good fit for the story: slow, deliberate, and a little haunting. While this release sees an improvement in the soundtrack to a full uncompressed transfer, it sounded precisely as I remembered the HDDVD sounding (tho I did not do rigorous A/B testing). The improvements (which were also present in the HDDVD) from the original DVD cannot be under stated, the solo lead guitar sounds incredibly resonant and becomes more interesting as a character in the movie.
There are a few scenes which pick up active action in the surrounds on this go around, notably in the storm scene and the rodeos, but surround is present throughout the film which was a shock (I think I even heard a sheep try to sneak up on me early on). Bass performance remained minimal, almost nonexistent except for a few thunder booms. The dialogue is STILL notably muddied at times, however as noted in my original review this is likely a factor of the southern drawl combined with shy characters rather than any real deficiency in the soundtrack.
Visual Quality: 5/5
Like the HD DVD before it, the upgraded visuals on this BluRay is been a major transformation when compared with the original DVD. The color on this transfer, which felt extremely muted in my original review, has the saturation still toned down but FEELS just spot on for the story and not artificially limited, with incredible sharpness, minimal grain except in darker scenes (It’s gone from the skies which was a big downer in the original release!), zero edge enhancement and detail that is almost overwhelming at times (You can seriously count the curls on individual sheep in a herd of hundreds in some scenes).
The cinematography rivals that of Dances With Wolves for showing off the American West better than just about any movie I can think of, with incredible vistas, solemn nightfall imagery, and simply stunning wide angle sweeps. Bottom line is that there are few films that showcase the rustic scenery like this one, and none of them had the minimal 14M budget Brokeback had.
Extra Features: 3/5
There are several in depth featurettes on this disk but overall the sheer volume isn’t quite as mindblowing as it was when the HDDVD first hit the market, and the contents of this disk are a near replica of that release. My favorite is one of the best looks at music in a film that I’ve seen: In “Music from the Mountains” composer Gustavo Santaolalla brings us through the birth of the music tracks he authored plus bits with Willie Nelson and other country artists who contributed tracks to the film. The pain on Willie’s face as he is recording “He was a friend of mine” was just about heartbreaking.
Also included is the major self-back-patting “A groundbreaking film” where the production folks get to wallow in the unexpected success of the film, tho to be fair they go into depth about the challenges this film had not only getting made but being accepted and embraced by mainstream audiences. Others from the HDDVD and the “Four Star” collection edition include 4 solid featurettes. ‘Directing from the Heart’ profiles Lee’s involvement with the progress of this film from short story form to his vision on screen. ‘From Script to Screen’ consists of interviews with script writers Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana on their choices in adapting Annie Proulx’s short story. ‘Sharing the Story’ is a behind the scenes look at the making of the film, including interviews with the cast, crew and producers. ‘On being a cowboy’ looks at the lifestyles of sheepherders and rodeo cowboys, and interviews the experts who trained Ledger and Gyllenhaal in preparation for this film. Note that like the HDDVD and Four Star collection there still are no trailers or commentary tracks on this edition.
Overall: 4/5 (not an average)
Brokeback Mountain wound up taking home three Academy Awards: Best Director for Lee, Best Score for Gustovo Santaolalla, and Best Adapted Screenplay, for McMurtry and Ossana. It was nominated for five more, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Ledger), Best Supporting Actor (Gyllenhaal), Best Supporting Actress (Williams), and Best Cinematography. It won 60 other awards and was nominated for a further 41.
Despite all of these accolades, it is a hard movie to digest for a lot of viewers, many of whom are not used to confronting its central issue so directly. Brokeback asks its audience to put themselves in the shoes of its characters, and to think about how they would react if they found themselves in love with someone of the same sex. While it celebrates the power of love to overcome so many complications, the somber tone and tragic end of the story echo the grave reality: this is a tough situation to be in and a hard life to lead.
While it is not practical to wonder if this movie would have been quite so successful had it dealt with a different central issue, the temptation is there. The pace and tone of this film are definitely atypical of what works for mainstream audiences. Perhaps its greatest success comes in just getting people talking and thinking about the issues. In the extras found on this BluRay (and the HD DVD before it) the producers expressed just that.
Ultimately, and even after repeated viewings, I was left with mixed feelings on this movie. As a character study it certainly is one of the most honest and compellingly human pictures I have seen. Artistically, the look and tone of film are truly unique and complement the subject matter entirely. In the end, it is not a movie I truly loved and want to see again multiple times, but it is a fine artistic film with a strong message, and gives viewers a lot to think about in their own lives, perhaps even too much.
I took a bit of heat for not actually liking Brokeback during my initial viewing and as I have noted above, my impression of the film didn’t change much during this repeat viewing. Sure the sound quality and visuals are pumped up nicely, but this remains a very simple love story told at a very deliberate and contemplative pace. The fact that it is about two men being in love really is secondary to the fact that it just did not emotionally hook me the way that so many other viewers got bit. It’s just not my kind of great movie and others will disagree, so we move on from there with the understanding that that’s my perspective on it.
Still, this edition of Brokeback overall is a winner, it is a mirror image of the HDDVD, closer than just about any other Universal re-release, and like that version it deserves to be considered ‘Recommended’. Despite my feelings about the overall greatness of the film I would add that even if they find the base concept of the movie hard to deal with, viewers should suck it up and give this movie a chance, as it certainly has resonated with the mainstream public and made great strides for what movies can accomplish artistically and in spreading a message.
Readers can find that original review here: