Brokeback Mountain

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 01/27/07 17:29:48

"No pudding. Just excellence."
5 stars (Awesome)

The eponymous range in 'Brokeback Mountain' is many things, but it sure doesn't look like a place that could nurture love.

The clouds in the Wyoming sky look like bruises on metal; if the cold or the hail don't get you, the bears or coyotes might. Aptly named, it's a real spine-cruncher of a locale, especially if you're a cowboy riding a skittish horse and trying to move hundreds of sheep from one end of the rocky, barren place to the other. Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, adapted from Annie Proulx' 1997 story first published in The New Yorker, imagines the nosebleed parts of Wyoming as the world itself, a vast yet constricting place where forms of love that don't meet with society's approval are shunted off among the creeks and wildlife. The mountain is both an epic backdrop and a closet.

It's 1963, and two hard-luck ranch hands Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) meet at the trailer of their would-be employer, Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid). They're assigned to Brokeback, where they'll theoretically keep Joe's sheep from becoming coyote munchies. It's a harsh and lonely job the men are supposed to camp miles apart and Ennis and Jack fill their time together with resentful talk about the boss and a few tidbits of autobiography. Jack does rodeos for off-season cash; orphaned young, with no family to fall back on, Ennis mostly kicks around. After about half an hour of screen time (seven pages in Proulx' concise story), it happens: the men share a tent and find themselves in the grip of a passion neither one understands.

Brokeback Mountain is not, as some claim, part of "the gay agenda"; it has the simplicity and clarity of a fable, wedded to the gnarled and taciturn physical realism of the Western. It is the classical star-crossed love, intended by Lee and screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana to be universal. Two men form the core, but Ennis emerges as the (flawed) hero, a man so strangled by fear that even his words come out half-swallowed. Ennis knows from horrid experience what happens to men like him and Jack in this part of the land. He says goodbye to Jack at the end of the season, then throws himself into marriage (Michelle Williams, as his wife Alma, emerges here as a major young actress post-Dawson's Creek) and kids. It's what he's supposed to do. Jack, for his part, meets and marries a feisty cowgirl (Anne Hathaway) and becomes an afterthought in his own life, treated contemptuously by his rich in-laws.

Every so often, the men reunite (for "fishing trips" that fail to fool their wives for long) and head for Brokeback Mountain, the one place they can be themselves. Jack is impatient; he wants to start up a ranch with Ennis and be with him all the time. Ennis, averting his eyes, mumbles about work commitments he can't get out of. There isn't much overt, external homophobia in Brokeback Mountain even mean old Joe Aguirre doesn't blow the whistle on the men when he spots them wrestling half-naked, and we feel that if Ennis and Jack had done a better job with the sheep, he would've hired them back no matter what they did at night. The phobia is all internal Jack beating his head against Ennis' nightmare of what might happen. Heath Ledger has gotten more interesting in the past couple of years, but this is his finest and most subtly shaded work yet; he makes Ennis a man mentally lashing out at shadows but too afraid even to speak most of the time. He shows us the terror inside the laconic Western hero.

Brokeback Mountain is the ideal project for Ang Lee, a director who has probed the sore spots of repressed people throughout his career: the gay-themed The Wedding Banquet (1993), Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), Sense and Sensibility (1995), The Ice Storm (1997), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), even Hulk (2003). Lee tells this story with delicate candor, making stunning use of the imposing (and actually Canadian) backdrop and working with a sensual rigor almost unmatched in recent films: You can just about taste the terrible coffee, smell the sheep, feel the skin-flaying cold.

As pure cinema, the movie is a considerable triumph, told with as few words as possible; "You don't say much, but you get your point across," someone says to Ennis' daughter (a chip off the old tight-lipped block), and that extends to 'Brokeback Mountain,' which should not be used by one political side or another as a cultural bludgeon. It's more like one of those bruise-colored clouds in the Wyoming sky -- viewed by some as a harbinger of destruction, welcomed by others as a cleansing and undeniable force that allows for blooming.

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