October 9, updated December 22, 2005 -- “Brokeback Mountain” is a modern story about star-crossed lovers. The only unusual thing about it is the two lovers happen to be men, and cowboys at that. Otherwise, this Romeo and Jack story unfolds like any other tragic tale of doomed love. In addition to this, it captures the modern west perhaps better than any other film has. It gives us a stunning view of a magnificent, harsh, unforgiving landscape peopled by harsh, unforgiving residents.
The lovers, Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal of “The Day After Tomorrow”) and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger of “Lords of Dogtown”), meet on the job, herding sheep in the high mountains of Wyoming. One cold night the two share a tent in the sheep camp and unlock a passion which changes their lives forever. Trying to deny his nature, Ennis goes back to his fiancée and tries to live a normal life, but his love for Jack won't go away. After several years pass, the two men get back together again and discover their passion for each other is still there. Where this passion comes from is mysterious. There seems to be nothing about this affair that is even remotely romantic. Jack proposes that they buy a ranch and live together, but Ennis is afraid of violence from people who hate gays. He tells Jack a horrifying story from his childhood about a gay rancher who was tortured and killed in a hate crime.
Jack and Ennis both are married, Jack to the beautiful Loreen (Anne Hathaway of “The Princess Diaries”) and Ennis to Alma (Michelle Williams of “The Station Agent”), but neither is a satisfying marriage. Jack's marriage is one of convenience, while Ennis marries Alma because he thinks this is the life he should be living. The two men continue to meet through the years, never satisfied with their too-brief encounters and never satisfied with their married lives, either. Their dreary lives drag on and on, in a manner similar to many people who carry on extra-marital affairs. They have their fleeting moments of happiness and their quarrels. Things go downhill from there.
This kind of tragic love story has traditionally been based on lovers from different social classes, as in “My Fair Lady,” or from different races, but those stories have become dated. “Brokeback Mountain” is up to date in its version of forbidden love because its conflict is based on one of the last socially-sanctioned forms of intolerance. Even now, in the 21st Century, we see the rise of an evangelical hatred of homosexuals that seems to come out of the Middle Ages, or the Middle East. This fear-fueled hatred, nurtured by a host of preachers (just as thousands of ministers once preached against interracial marriage), has been exploited by politicians in the form of referenda against same-sex marriage. This movie makes a passionate argument against the notion of forcing homosexuals into one-definition-fits-all heterosexual marriages. This does not result in strengthening the institution of marriage any more than banning same-sex marriage does. Instead, this film argues that love is more powerful than institutions, laws or definitions. If love is denied, even for supposedly holy reasons, many more will suffer, including the innocent.
The story is set in Wyoming, but the film was shot in Canada and New Mexico. The cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto (“21 Grams”) captures the magnificent high country of the Rocky Mountains, drab little western towns and bleak dry ranch lands. The music in the film is also very evocative, with songs by Rufus Wainwright, Roger Miller, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and many others. One song, “Water Walking Jesus,” was written by James McMurtry, Stephen Bruton and Annie Proulx. The western-sounding, guitar-heavy musical score by Gustavo Santaolalla (“The Motorcycle Diaries”) is excellent.
I have lived in Wyoming for over 25 years and can attest to the fact that this film captures the spirit of the Rocky Mountain west and its people faithfully. The story begins in 1963 and apparently ends sometime around the present. As a period piece about the west it is probably more representative of the 1960s than the present day. I think there is more tolerance of gay people now than there was 40 years ago. The massive turnout for this film at a recent Casper, Wyoming premiere (and across the rest of the country) is testimony to that. I think eventually gays will win the right to marry, just as laws against interracial marriage gradually went the way of the dinosaur. I don't know if gay people will ever be accepted because there will always be those who preach hatred against them, but I think they will eventually be tolerated. Now, they are only tolerated if they keep quiet and inconspicuous.
The acting is superb by all the leads, and in the supporting roles like that of Randy Quaid (“Hard Rain”), who plays merciless ranch boss Joe Aguirre, and has an unintentionally funny line about sleeping with sheep. Before I saw “Lords of Dogtown,” I would have said that Heath Ledger is a revelation in this film. He is quickly working his way to the top of his profession. The film is slow-moving and relentlessly downbeat, but is deftly directed by Ang Lee (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) who is no stranger to stories about doomed love.
Despite the unusual nature of this particular love affair, the film is, in all other respects, quite conventional, with a straightforward chronological storytelling approach. It also offers virtually no surprises (unless you hadn't heard this was a gay cowboy story before seeing the film). It is very predictable. The story is based on a short story by Wyoming resident E. Annie Proulx (winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her novel “The Shipping News”). The story is faithfully adapted for the screen by another prize-winning writer, Larry McMurtry (“Lonesome Dove”) and Diana Ossana (a frequent collaborator with McMurtry). This kind of movie is not exactly my cup of tea. I can't work up much enthusiasm for plodding, predictable, one-note, depressing films like this. If you can, then this might be just your cup of chai. I rate this film a B.
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