Brokeback Mountain

| December 12, 2005

OK, let’s get this out of the way up front–“Brokeback Mountain” is a movie about gay cowboys in 1960s Wyoming. Though its reputation as “that gay cowboy movie” is mounting, however, the homosexuality in “Brokeback Mountain” is in fact not the focal point of the movie–it’s merely the obstacle that prevents two star-crossed lovers from being able to live happily ever after. We”ve seen this’story many times before (“Romeo & Juliet” and its later interpretation, “West “ide Story,” are the iconic examples), but “Brokeback” reminds us of why the formula works–it’s a beautiful, touching, and, above all, human love story that exquisitely captures the universal emotions of love and longing.
Directed by Academy Award-winner Ang Lee and starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, “Brokeback” is based on the short story by E. Annie Proulx that appeared in The New Yorker in 1997. The film opens in 1963, as two rugged, aimless young cowboys end up spending the summer together, tending sheep on Wyoming’s desolate Brokeback Mountain. (The iconic setting serves as a constant reminder that these characters exist both literally and figuratively on a frontier.) As the summer wears on, the more gregarious of the two, Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal), is able to bring the shy, guarded Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) out of his shell. The audience of course knows where this friendship is heading, but their first sexual encounter–hardly a romantic one–catches at least one of these men a little by surprise. The ensuing, eruptive brutality of this encounter betrays the force with which these two must break through the confines of their world. Though Ennis at first resists engaging in a full-fledged affair (“I’m not no queer,” he protests, to which Jack replies, “Me neither”), they ultimately surrender to their passions and while away a blissful, idyllic summer together. A few neglected sheep are seemingly the only unfortunate casualties of their romance.
The end of the summer brings with it the sobriety of real life, however, down from the mountain. The two part ways and do their best to go through the requisite motions of their culture, each marrying and having children. Eventually, however, their intense addiction to one another overpowers them, and they embark on a secret, long-distance, life-altering romance that neither knows how to fully embrace nor walk away from.
Ang Lee is no stranger to movies about characters confined by the mores of their societies (e.g., Victorian “Sense & Sensibility,” 1970s suburbian “The Ice Storm,” and ancient Chinese “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), and this, his latest masterpiece, continues the trend. With that in mind, the homosexuality in the film is almost an arbitrary device; if it were not that, it would be something else keeping these two lovers apart. Lee’s direction is superbly languid. The screenplay doesn’t expand significantly on the short story, allowing for an achingly unhurried pace that perfectly underlines the frustrated romance depicted onscreen. Lee’s tempo here feels like a throwback to films of the 1970s, when directors allowed their films a certain breathing room, and didn’t shy away from long, sometimes awkward silences among their characters.
Heath Ledger (“Lords o” Dogtown,” “Monster’s Ball”) continues to impress here with his “Sling Blade”-like mumbled drawl and tight, furtive glances, and his contained performance is justifiably earning him “breakthrough” accolades and rumors of an Oscar nomination. Gyllenhaal’s performance is also consistent with his young but accomplished body of work (“Jarhead,” “The Good Girl,” “Donnie Darko”), and should put to rest his image as the poor man’s Tobey Maguire. But in the end this is Ledger’s movie. His Ennis is more mature, more complicated than Jack (though Jack’s innocence is arguably a more evolved, self-assured quality in a sense), and his journey is a somehow more tortured one.
The cast is rounded out by fine supporting actors, with not a weak link among them. Michelle Williams as Ennis’s wife and Anne Hathaway as Jack’s have certainly outgrown their “Dawson’s Creek” and “Princess Diaries” days, respectively. Linda Cardellini, Anna Faris, Kate Mara, and Randy Quaid, in a small but memorable role, also deliver fine and textured performances. Quintessential Western screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana (“Johnson County War;” “Streets of Laredo”) deliver a beautifully understated–though profoundly expressive–look at the depths of the inexplicable emotions that true love brings about. Indeed, several of their scenes in this movie rank among the most romantic and heartbreaking in movie history, and their power resonates long after leaving the theatre.
The film brings together creative teams favored by other accomplished directors–namely, composer Gustavo Santaolalla and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieta, both from Guillermo Arriaga/Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “21 Grams” and “Amores Perros,” and editors Dylan Tichenor and the late Geraldine Peroni, frequent Robert Altman collaborators. Their talent is exemplified and put to sublime effect here. The score, like the screenplay, is unobtrusive but memorable and concise; the cinematography represents the beautifully expansive setting and includes some breathtaking shots; and the editing complements the drifting tumbleweed pace of the direction perfectly.
Many are undoubtedly going to see this movie for its mere titillation factor–i.e., two hunky Hollywood stars getting it on. Though it certainly will not disappoint on this front, “Brokeback” is ultimately an homage to the euphoric places we escape to, whether emotionally or geographically. For Jack and Ennis, Brokeback Mountain happens to be both. The film represents the height of love’s agony and ecstasy–it presents both a profound reassurance that such deep love exists, and the debilitating tragedy of seeing it go so unfulfilled. For any of us who have a Brokeback Mountain of our own (or wish to one day), this film somehow breaks your heart and makes it whole, all at the same time.

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