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Film review

'Brokeback Mountain' rises above hype

Ang Lee's film will be considered a social statement, but at heart it's a love story of whose beautifully woven fabric homosexuality is only a thread.

Published January 5, 2006

[Photo: Focus Features]
Actors Heath Ledger, left, and Jake Gyllenhaal turn in compelling performances as two people who are a perfect match in imperfect circumstances.

Some people think they've seen Brokeback Mountain even before it reaches their local theaters. It's "that gay cowboy movie" everyone cracks jokes about on TV and highbrow critics call a masterpiece, which must mean Ang Lee's film is a sordid snore.

That kind of thinking is precisely why Brokeback Mountain demands to be seen. Shortsighted people also believe they're right about homosexuality and what makes a real man: Cowboys are all John Wayne macho, gays are fey, and never do those extremes meet. Lee's beautifully conceived film shows they can because true love bridges anything.

Brokeback Mountain will be considered a social statement, but above all else, a love story. Like the most enduring movie romances, there's always something keeping perfectly matched people apart. The obstacles preventing two Montana ranch hands from living and loving together are daunting, especially in 1963 America. People are killed for doing what they're wishing for.

Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) knows that firsthand. His father once showed him the mutilated corpse of a rancher figured to be homosexual. Ennis has grown up uneasily in his father's image: a coarse man of few words and fewer emotions. That is, until he meets Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) during sheep herding season on Brokeback Mountain.

In the parlance of our times, they complete each other. Jack is talkative, a bit too gentle for the rodeo circuit, where he makes a few dollars. A tiny smile when he first sees Ennis suggests Jack has known these feelings before. Ennis' aversion to conversation is a vague signal of playing hard to get. Stolen glances and horseplay are all they share in the film's laconic first act. One freezing night, Ennis and Jack drink whisky, huddle for warmth and surrender to desire.

It doesn't look like making love. The first time is lustfully aggressive, followed by Ennis' shamed denial and Jack's submissive satisfaction. Lee shows them having sex only once, enough to portray this as an uncomfortably passionate situation. Theirs isn't a relationship built upon sex, but the act opens the door for two emotionally detached men to find something forbidden they'll cling to the rest of their lives.

Jack and Ennis reluctantly say goodbye when the job ends, but not forever. Ennis returns home to Texas to marry Alma (Michelle Williams) and raise children. Jack returns to the rodeo circuit, where he meets and marries Lureen (Anne Hathaway), daughter of a wealthy farm equipment salesman, who can secure his future. Neither man is as happy as when they were together.

Jack contacts Ennis, requesting a Brokeback reunion. It's the first of several meetings over the years, ostensibly for fishing, although they never bait a hook. Alma's suspicions begin when she sees Jack and Ennis kissing but can't confront her husband about it. Lee's film becomes a western class saga on the order of George Stevens' Giant, recalling the hindsight homoeroticism of that film's stars, Rock Hudson and James Dean.

Much happens over the next two decades, some of it unsavory, as Jack's true colors are revealed and Ennis isolates himself from his family. The repercussions of their affair are smartly detailed in the screenplay based on Annie Proulx's short story, never sappy or campy as hesitant viewers may expect. Brokeback Mountain is so delicately layered that the homosexual angle becomes just another thread in an unshakable romantic tragedy.

None of that care would matter without actors thoroughly committed to making each moment genuine. Ledger's performance is a Method template for actors to study forever, absent of guile and filled with compelling nonverbal communication. Ennis is still water running deeper than anyone except Ledger imagines. Watching him reveal this deceptively complex character from the inside out is one of 2005's most thrilling movie experiences.

Gyllenhaal is nearly as good, although Jack's character is all surface, nothing hidden. Even the manly mustache he grows later in life is a transparent disguise of masculinity. Jack exists primarily as our guide to Ennis' soul, a slightly more liberated motivator of his submerged feelings. It's a tricky position for any actor, but Gyllenhaal handles it well.

Williams can be overlooked amid Brokeback Mountain's sexual politics but shouldn't be underestimated. Alma deserves better than a man distracted by someone else, no matter what gender. She's fiercely loyal beyond the point when loyalty doesn't matter anymore. Williams avoids the shrillness and pity that could be expected under these adulterous circumstances, never offering any reason for Ennis to stray. Alma's goodness becomes another measure of the men's devotion to each other; it must be strong to risk hurting such a person.

Other choice moments are provided by Randy Quaid as the sheep rancher who realizes what Jack and Ennis did on Brokeback Mountain and can't hide his disgust. Hathaway isn't in her co-stars' league, although a quietly devastating telephone conversation with Ennis suggests she can be someday.

Surrounding the actors are majestic landscapes and private intimacies perfectly framed by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto. A sparse musical score, mostly mournful guitars, is right in line with Lee's subtle handling of potentially melodramatic material. Everything in Brokeback Mountain is classy without clamoring for attention.

But attention is exactly what Lee's film has garnered, initially for its revisionist themes of masculinity and homosexuality. Now it's time to set aside preconceptions and focus on the artful emotions of a terrifically told story. Brokeback Mountain will shock some viewers for the way it humanizes an issue too often demonized. It may make a difference by simply polarizing audiences. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Brokeback Mountain

Grade: A

Director: Ang Lee

Cast: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway, Randy Quaid, Kate Mara

Screenplay: Larry McMurtry, Diana Ossana, based on the short story by Annie Proulx

Rating: R; sexual situations, profanity, brief violence

Running time: 134 min.

[Last modified January 4, 2006, 11:17:07]

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