Film-Forward Review: [BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN]

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Heath Ledger (L) as Ennis &
Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack
Photo: Kimberley French/Focus

BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN
Directed by: Ang Lee.
Produced by: Diana Ossana & James Schamus.
Written by: Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana, based on the short story by Annie Proulx.
Director of Photography: Rodrigo Prieto.
Edited by: Geraldine Peroni & Dylan Tichenor.
Music by: Gustavo Santaolalla.
Released by: Focus.
Country of Origin: USA. 134 min. Rated: R.
With: Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger, Linda Cardellini, Anna Faris, Anne Hathaway, Michelle Williams, Randy Quaid & Kate Mara.

To a short story about a ranch hand and a rodeo cowboy who try to keep their relationship secret, screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana have deftly added humor, expanded the roles of minor characters, and remained all the while faithful to author Annie Proulx's spare style. Director Ang Lee casts an eye at once expansive - full of landscape and cloudbanks - and novelistic in its detail, focus and intensity.

Ennis meets Jack in the summer of 1963, when they both take jobs shepherding on Brokeback Mountain, Wyoming. They make something like love one night, emboldened by drink, cold and not a little isolation. Despite their protestations the next day that neither is queer, the relationship develops through fall and winter. The job ends and both Ennis and Jack move on. They marry and father children in disparate locales - Jack in Texas; Ennis, Wyoming. Forgetting each other, however, proves hard. After four years, they pick up where they left off and continue to meet every few months for over 20 years or at least until tragedy strikes.

It's difficult to overstate the subtlety with which Lee zeroes in on the characters, settings and actions. At first, Ennis and Jack eye each other, always with a growing awareness of developing passion, never with unimaginatively-directed eroticism. Many friends have asked, "Is their full frontal nudity?" "Is it hot-hot-hot?" No, no, no. And yes, yes, yes. What's important is that we get authentic love scenes between men. They are both closeted, which seems a throwback to at least one friend. But make no mistake, Brokeback Mountain is a period piece - a regional period piece.

It's difficult, too, to overstate the intelligence with which the screenwriters and director grasp Proulx's use of narrative devices. Ennis is a ranch hand, Jack a rodeo cowboy. Making love on a mountain and by rivers, they're idyllic heroes, each with a different mission - Jack, a romantic who insists the two men can have a life together; Ennis, a realist who sees that, coupled, he and Jack will only invite violence upon themselves. Frustrated and spurned by Ennis yet again, Jack picks up a hustler in Mexico. Lee's camera follows the two men until they disappear into the darkness at alley's end - one example of Lee's consistently incisive touch.

As Jack, Jake Gyllenhaal is solid, but Heath Ledger is great. His grosgrain voice ages along with his character. His body language is repressed, and when comic relief is called for, he makes use of subtle slapstick. Lee even manages to make Gyllenhaal and Ledger look not too glamorous. (Proulx describes Jack as buck-toothed and Ennis cave-chested.) As Ennisí wife Alma, Michelle Williams conveys the pain inflicted on everyone in the menís orbit, and Anne Hathaway is humorously costumed and coiffured as Jack's rich, somewhat tacky wife. But despite the makeup, bleached hair and jewelry, Hathaway makes a dramatic leap as the story grows more and more serious. She should, along with Williams, begin rehearsing an acceptance speech for best supporting actress. And in their brief but well-played roles as Jackís parents, Roberta Maxwell and Peter McRobbie are aided by sets that make you squint at the stark beauty of rural Utah poverty.

One scene from the story McMurtry and Ossana chose to omit is telling. Ennis recalls to Jack how as a boy he often missed the toilet. One night, when his father was angered enough to piss on him, Jack noticed his father was uncircumcised: "While he was hosing me down... I seen they'd cut me different." Inclusion of this scene would have taken Brokeback Mountain in a more literary, arty direction (see, for instance, many of the graphic scenes in Jonathan Demme's highly underrated Beloved). Instead, the screenwriters and Lee clearly decided to make Brokeback Mountain a romance. Maybe it was just difficult to conceive and execute such a scene. Or they didn't want some viewers deducing that Ennis grew up gay because he was abused. In any case, through their omission, and many accomplishments, the filmmakers have given us a melancholic story of star-crossed lovers, a kind of Romeo and Romeo seldom seen on screen. Steven Cordova, contributing editor and poet (Slow Dissolve, Momotombo Press)
December 9, 2005

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