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Director: Ang Lee

Producers: Diana Ossana, James Schamus

Written by: Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana; short story by E. Annie Proulx

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway, Randy Quaid, Linda Cardellini, Anna Faris


“That ‘ole Brokeback got us good,” Jack Twist tells his lover in a moment of pensive recollection. And, as most viewers will see, this majestic new film from gifted director Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Sense And Sensibility), gets us good, too. A story of two sheepherding cowboys who fall in love in the American west in 1963, Brokeback Mountain is based on Annie Proulx’s 1997 spare short story, and the film scarcely misses an adaptive beat in its cinematic reincarnation. This is an extraordinary film, one that pulsates with desire, longing, and heartbreak long after the credits have finished rolling. In its most poetic moments, Lee’s camera actually lets us breathe in the crisp Wyoming mountain air. We can smell the sheep and the pine needles and the cool river water. Like its setting, the film’s first 40 minutes are quiet, but the picture moves with such breathtaking fluidity that the viewer is swept away by its haunting beauty. It slowly builds up to an intense, fiery passion that finds two young men embracing and making love high in the recesses of a distant Wyoming mountain.

Heath Ledger is a revelation as Ennis del Mar, a tall and lanky, soft-spoken soul who mumbles his words with repressed truth. Ledger’s performance has been likened to the best of Marlon Brando, and while I will not go that far in my praise, he is achingly unforgettable, and a large part of what makes this a great film. When Ledger falls to the ground in order to retch after Jack drives away from their first summer on Brokeback Mountain, his heartbreak catches him in the throat and nearly suffocates him. Here, Ledger is remarkable.

As Jack Twist, actor Jake Gyllenhaal easily gives the finest performance of his young career. Growing a little grey around the edges and developing a thick mustache as the two men get older, Gyllenhaal’s doe eyes grow sadder and sadder along with the story itself.

These two men fall madly in love with one another, but they don’t know what to do about it. In the beginning, they don’t know if they should see one another again, allowing four years to pass before Jack finally gets the courage to write Ennis a postcard. He tells him that he’ll be passing through town soon, wondering whether Ennis will oblige him a hello. “You bet,” is Ennis’s brief but telling reply.

Even cowboys can fall in love with one another. And even in today’s progressively liberal Hollywood, the Brokeback screenplay, by Pulitzer-prize winning novelist Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove), sat on the shelf for years. The film’s producers were unable to find actors who were willing to risk their careers in order to star in a sensual gay romance. And I’d be willing to bet that the same air of fear and condemnation, even in a country where gay marriage is seriously debated today, still permeates the western ranges of Texas and Wyoming where Jack and Ennis wandered 40 years ago. In many ways, Brokeback Mountain is reminiscent of another classic McMurtry film, The Last Picture Show (1972), where the same sense of bone-deep sorrow and loneliness shadows every frame of the film.

Both Ennis and Jack marry pretty women, bear children, drink and play, and live the lives they have been expected to live. But as the years go by, they continue to see one another in Wyoming for what they tell their wives are simple fishing trips with an “old buddy.” During these bi-annual hook-ups, the two men never catch a single fish. Instead, they spend their time riding horses, skinny-dipping, and making love. For Ennis, Jack is the only man he sleeps with, and if he had never met Jack, one imagines that he might have gone through his entire life as an unhappy straight man. But for Jack, the longing for male companionship while he and Ennis are parted eventually becomes too painful. After 20 years of waiting for Ennis to be honest about his feelings and overcome his fears, Jack eventually finds solace in the arms of other men. Meanwhile, Ennis cannot seem to find a way to make himself happy. A lonely, broken man by the end of their love story, Ennis cries, “You’re the reason I’m this way, Jack.” The nuances of the actors’ performances, including Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway as Ennis’s and Jack’s tossed-away wives, are dazzling. To see Hathaway transform from a young spunky brunette to an embittered, bejeweled platinum blonde is shockingly truthful. And Williams’ final confrontation with her husband’s hidden identity unveils a lifetime of suspicion and unspoken understanding that is ultimately devastating.

The pauses and the silent moments in the film, as in the opening scene where Ennis waits, hat pulled down, cradling a cigarette outside a rickety trailer, are what make this film so special. It’s the sort of film one can never forget, because it is so real. And like the cries of the coyotes that populate Brokeback Mountain, I am haunted by it.

—Tiffany Crouch Bartlett

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

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