Brokeback Mountain

December, 2005, Drama

Directed by:Ang Lee

Starring:Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Randy Quaid, Anne Hathaway, and Michelle Williams

Director Ang Lee’s latest has a lot going for it; a wonderfully lean script by Larry McMurtry, (from the highly-praised short story by Annie Proulx) gorgeous western scenery beautifully captured by the cameras of veteran cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and a standout performance by Heath Ledger…not to mention the accolades already lavished on it by the critics before the end of its first week in release. But is it possible this film’s extravagant reception by the industry’s cognoscenti has more to do with its politically-correct celebration of “a theme whose time has come” rather than the actual merits of the movie itself?

Lee’s oeuvre, (Sense & Sensibility, The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) stands as extraordinary testimony to his eclectic selection of genre and theme, which have earned him much justifiable praise. His presentation of Proulx’s tale about two young Wyoming ranch hands who fall in love during a summer of high mountain work in the 1960’s blends rich atmospheric detail with a thoughtful handling of the subject of male/male sexuality and the price paid by those who struggle to comport themselves in heterosexual lives in an attempt to conform to society’s “proper” expectations.

Ennis Del Mar, (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist, (Jake Gyllenhall) meet when they sign on to herd a large flock of sheep during the brief summer months of the Northern Rocky Mountains. Ennis is so taciturn he could qualify for service as a cloistered monk; Jack has the overly-eager gregariousness of a kid who’s already discovered that his skills lag behind what life expects of him and compensates for it with awkward surges of low-rent bravado. With only each other for company, they drive their wooly charges into a region so remote each must rely completely on the other for meals, shelter and companionship. After an especially prickly start, they slowly grow to appreciate their job-induced relationship; an enduring bond develops naturally as the days drift slowly by. Jack makes the initial move to escalate their growing affection, which culminates in the start of a physical relationship Ennis joins with stunned co-operation. 

Lee and McMurty, (the author of Lonesome Dove) manage the development of the sexual aspect of the relationship so deftly the characters 

initially seem oblivious to it. Once initiated, each assures the other they’re “not queer”. But boringly repetitive chores have to performed and what began as a bone-wearying, low-paying job becomes a pastoral idyll for both, punctuated with self-conscious bouts of rough-housing and love making.

At summer’s end, the pair goes in separate directions and the film tracks their subsequently compartmentalized lives as husbands and fathers. Jack marries the daughter of an affluent Texas businessman while Ennis returns home to marry the sweetheart he left behind during his summer on the mountain. Del Mar’s hardscrabble life as a ranch-hand produces an unsatisfied wife, two adoring daughters and spasms of violent behavior born of the frustrations his sexual appetites inspire. Twist slips into a marriage of economic convenience, battling a dismissive father-in-law for the affections of Jack’s only child, a pampered son. Yet the lovers re-connect intermittently, awkwardly disguised fishing trips only temporarily slacking their thirst for each other. The movie follows the course of these tormented lives to a conclusion preordained by the painful collision of biological inclination and societal expectation. In the best sense of the term, “Brokeback” is a love story; one shot through with a sense of abiding tragedy.

As Ennis, Ledger, (known for beef-cake appearances in                               the dreadful re-makes of Four Feathers and Ned Kelly) brings his character to life with beautifully detailed authenticity; conflicted, inarticulate and innately withdrawn, Ennis struggles helplessly to understand and accept himself as he really is; Ledger provides surprisingly delicate nuance in his depiction of this essentially hermetically-sealed person. (Oscar-watchers take note; compare Ledger’s efforts with those of River Phoenix as Johnny Cash in Walk The Line and see just how overrated the latter performance really is.) As Jack, Gyllenhaal has the challenging task of portraying a man whose sexual orientation doesn’t present the same challenge of self-definition; he wears his needs with more open vulnerability than Ennis, but the actor just doesn’t convey the sense of reckless charm the script requires—it’s simply hard to accept the chemistry Lee so patiently records over the 20+ years of this frantically sporadic relationship. 

Classically attractive screen lovers have to be appealing and somehow authentic in the situations the script puts them in. For all his commendable efforts in  this regard, Lee has chosen one telling detail that undermines the credibility of his leads. Ennis and Jake smoke--quite a bit during the first reel, whole cartons over the film’s two plus hours of running time. Yet unlike President Clinton, Ledger and Gyllenhall too obviously don’t inhale; each offers such a poor imitation of doing so it’s simply not possible to take them as the quintessential Marlboro Men the director’s laboring to present. While Ledger’s performance ultimately overcomes this off-putting lack of realism, Gyllenhall isn’t up to the task. Of such tiny mis-steps are audience mistrust made….

 Jack’s the son of a chillingly cold, demanding father and a withdrawn, ineffectual mother; as such, the character requires an actor who can match Ledger’s stoic reserve with an appealing ebullience that Gyllenhaal simply can’t muster. As a result, their affair appears one-sided; Ennis’ deeply repressed anguish finds an inadequate counter-point in Jack’s increasingly desperate aimlessness. The result is a movie with a host of commendable attributes but lacking one crucial element--chemistry. 

The subject of homosexuality has probably never been presented with the thoughtfulness and compassion demonstrated here, but the finished product fails to adequately convey the anguish two real men would feel. 

The Verdict? Formally flawless, “Brokeback” falls short of genius precisely because it cannot make its essential relationship come to life. See it and be impressed, but don’t expect to be deeply moved.

 

    

     

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