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Brokeback Mountain (2005) Print E-mail
Thursday, 08 December 2005
Adapted from a short, to-the-point story by E. Annie Proulx, “Brokeback Mountain” is a very good love story about two cowboys that breaks ground for a lot of reasons. The most obvious is that this is the first mainstream American movie to have fairly explicit sex between two male leads (not X-rated, but as much as one would see with heterosexual couples in a narrative feature). Another is that, in a perfectly serious way, it makes explicit the homoerotic themes that have underlined Westerns beyond counting. Yet another is that the two main characters, for all their considerable problems, never question their own or each other’s masculinity – nor would any sane member of the audience. In some other ways, however (which cannot be discussed without going into the finale), the film returns to some very familiar patterns. Ultimately, though, what emerges is a very convincing portrait of a passion that is central to the lives of both people caught up in it.

Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) are both 19 years old in 1963, when they first meet on the job as shepherds to a high-mountain flock on Brokeback Mountain, Wyoming. Ennis is as silent and stoic as they come; Jack is a little more talkative and a little more inclined to bend rules. Gradually, they get to talking – Ennis is engaged to be married and someday hopes to have a little ranch spread of his own, while Jack aspires to be a rodeo bull rider. One night, they share a tent. Jack appears to be simply seeking a bit of sexual relief, but Ennis’ response is so galvanized that it turns into something overwhelming. Even though both verbally assert their heterosexuality and declare this to be a “one-shot,” it lasts throughout the summer. At the end, neither is happy about going their separate ways. Ennis marries his fiancée (Michelle Williams); Jack winds up wed to a rodeo rider (Anne Hathaway) with a wealthy father; both have children. Jack makes the best of things where he is, while Ennis buries himself in cowboy work, away from home for weeks at a time. Four years after Brokeback Mountain, Jack sends Ennis a postcard, Ennis responds, Jack shows up – and they are both promptly once more drawn together by the most intense emotion either has experienced. When Ennis worries aloud to Jack “if this thing comes over us in the wrong place,” he seems literally concerned that they’ll be carried away in the middle of the street (which isn’t too far from what happens at one point). Jack, while not throwing caution to the wind, has a practical plan for how they can be together, but Ennis, fearful of both the possible physical dangers of what would happen if they were found out and also fearful of being emotionally awake all the time, pulls back. The result is an affair that lasts for years in weeklong bursts once or twice annually.
“Brokeback Mountain” does what a lot of romantic dramas aspire to but never achieve – it illustrates clearly, with a minimum of dialogue and a maximum of impact, what happens when people, for whatever reason, have day to day existences that are totally out of sync with their feeling selves. We get both the ardor that exists between Ennis and Jack and the emotional connection that overlaps it – they are each the only person the other feels entirely comfortable opening up to and hearing. We get the sense that for the terse Ennis, at least, Jack is the only person in his life with whom real communication is actually possible. Ledger pulls off the extremely difficult task of being true to Ennis’ tamped-down, macho demeanor while still letting us in on everything going on inside the character’s heart. Gyllenhaal, allowed to be a little more extroverted, is charming and forthright as Jack.

Director Ang Lee and screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana have adapted E. Annie Proulx’s short story with a steady, quietly intense sensibility that really gives us a sense of both the two men at its core and the hardscrabble environment around them, as well as their inadvertent effect on others in their lives. Williams is excellent as Ennis’s bewildered, increasingly hurt wife and Hathaway is superb as a playful spirit gradually worn down by subtle disappointment.

Sound in the film is good, with a hailstorm that envelops the theatre, a nice spatial sense of how far off the sheep are up the mountain (created by distant but present bleats) and an appropriate period jukebox score.

“Brokeback Mountain” has aspects that make it unique as a mainstream release in terms of subject matter, but that’s not the main reason to see it. The primary recommendation here is that it is a love story that is gripping, intelligent and has a lot of insight about what people will and won’t give up for what means most to them. It’s also, for those who appreciate the aesthetic here, very sexy.

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