Brokeback Mountain

Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist arrived at the trailer of Wyoming rancher Joe Aguirre with hope of work for the summer. Not anxious to lose any sheep to predators, Aguirre hires the nineteen-year-olds to watch over the flock on Brokeback Mountain. While Ennis stays behind at the base camp, Jack travels up the mountain to sleep with the sheep. It’s a tedious, lonely existence made worse by the frigid cold and torrential downpours.

Where’s a lonely cowboy to turn, and before you start in with the sheep jokes, remember Brokeback Mountain isn’t an exercise in animal husbandry. Written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, based on Pulitzer Prize-winning author E. Annie Proulx’s short story, Brokeback Mountain emerges as a film of unexpected beauty and heartache, a mature, loving and memorable exploration of love found and lost.

Trumpeted by some as the gay cowboy movie, Brokeback Mountain is never that exploitive. First and foremost it’s a love story. It deals with real feelings and issues. The fact the star-crossed lovers are both men only adds layers to an already complicated emotional process. How the filmmakers and cast members deal with that process makes Brokeback Mountain one of the best films of the year.

Originally printed in 1997, Proulx’s short story immediately fascinated Hollywood. McMurtry and frequent collaborator Ossana wrote a screenplay which made the rounds and attracted a lot of attention. Several directors came and went, leaving Brokeback Mountain a cinematic orphan. Were audiences ready for a slice of Americana about two married men who find comfort in each other’s arms?

It may have taken almost a decade to reach the screen, but that’s okay because Brokeback Mountain is timeless. Like all great films, it takes us on a journey. You don’t just watch Brokeback Mountain, you experience it. The filmmakers aren’t making a statement or standing on a soapbox, all they ask is you leave all preconceptions at the door. Take the film, the characters and their decisions at face value. Brokeback Mountain isn’t a recruitment poster. It’s a complex, honest, adult love story whose images will haunt you long after the film is over.

Set in Wyoming (filmed in Calgary), Brokeback Mountain begins in 1963 with the arrival of Ennis (Heath Ledger). Orphaned at a young age and weary of the world, Ennis is a quiet man. Engaged to Alma (Michelle Williams), Ennis has come looking for summer work. Moments later Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) pulls his rickety pick-up truck into the dusty parking lot. Twist immediately shows an interest in Ennis, but he’s obviously sizing up the competition. The two don’t speak. Body language says more than words. In terms of size and strength, both men are equal. Tough call if only one position is available.

Fortunately, gruff rancher Aguirre (Randy Quaid) needs two men, and hires Ennis and Jack. When Jack wakes up inside the tent in the middle of the night and sees Ennis outside freezing, he forces Ennis to crawl inside the tent. When Jack wraps Ennis’ arm around him, what starts off as a seemingly innocuous attempt to share body heat turns into a violent confrontation before becoming an act of love.

As everyone East of the Rockies and West of the Mississippi pick their jaw up off the ground, the act is only graphic in its emotional value. You have to admire director Ang Lee, the writers, and the actors for presenting Brokeback Mountain matter-of-fact. For Ennis and Jack, the act is almost a necessity, and instead of feeling repulsed we wonder what took them so long to realize the obvious.

Only it’s not obvious to Ennis and Jack, who immediately disqualify themselves from being queer. One time thing, heat of the moment, girlfriend at home. The checklist is obvious, still Ennis and Jack part ways. Ennis heads back home to Alma, whom he marries and begins a family. Jack hits the rodeo circuit, hoping to lose himself in his work. Jack eventually marries pretty Lureen (Anne Hathaway) and becomes her father’s top tractor salesman.

Several years go by when Ennis gets a postcard from Jack. A one-time rendezvous turns into an annual tradition, each man realizing they need each other as much as their families. Some more than others. While Ennis is the man of his home, Jack takes a backseat to his overbearing father-in-law and business-minded wife. It’s a loveless marriage of convenience, never discussed but silently acknowledged.

Alma is such a sweet person we feel bad for her, but even she knows her husband and Jack are more than friends. Their fishing trips don’t fool her, and in one of the film’s most telling moments, Alma confronts Ennis. It’s heartbreaking as we listen to Alma explain how a simple gesture opened her eyes. The confrontation is so powerful, so devastating, it leaves you shaking. Ennis doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t need to. Look in his eyes and you can see a part of him dying.

The scene is repeated when Jack meets Ennis after his divorce, believing his best friend is finally free to share his life. When Ennis tells Jack it’s a pipedream, that two men living together on a ranch will raise more than eyebrows, the declaration leaves Jack shattered. The parallels between the two scenes are important. It doesn’t matter who you are, when you realize you can’t be with the person you love, it feels like your life is over. We see that in Jack’s eyes.

Brokeback Mountain lives and breathes on its talent. In less capable hands, all of this could have been melodrama. It’s important these characters never become caricatures. They have to be real so their pains and joys are real. Director Lee is the perfect choice to realize Brokeback Mountain. Many forget the director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Hulk also directed one of the great American films of the last decade, The Ice Storm. Lee’s understanding of American culture and tradition is evident in every frame. With the help of cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, Lee immerses us and the characters in imagery recalling such great directors as John Ford and William Wyler. Brokeback Mountain is as beautiful as it is authentic.

The story takes place over twenty years, and Ledger is masterful as a man who has a lived a lot of life in such a short time. Nothing Ledger has done has prepared us for the intensity he brings to Ennis, a soulful depth which knows no boundaries. Gyllenhaal is beautiful as a man in love, always having to compromise his feelings. Williams packs quite a punch as Alma, while Hathaway delivers a sassy adult performance.

You may not have heard of Brokeback Mountain yet, but you will. Oh yes, you will.

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Brokeback Mountain

Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway, Randy Quaid. Directed by Ang Lee. Rated R. 134 Minutes.

Larsen Rating: $10.00

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