January 12, 2006

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FILM: Brokeback Mountain (R)

by Amy Diaz

Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal fall in big crazy love in the sweeping tragic romance Brokeback Mountain.

If this were the tale of a man and woman kept apart by societal circumstances it would seem hopelessly silly. Romance novels have forever been inventing reasons that two people can’t fully realize their love, in large part because the chase is endlessly fascinating but the catch is fairly dull. And getting two people together has become exponentially easier as society advances. Even in period pieces, your modern filmgoer can roll her eyes and let out an “oh please” at the scullery maid who doesn’t believe she’s good enough for the nobleman.

Two men who fall in love in 1963 present, finally, a couple in a believable pickle. As the men find themselves growing ever closer, Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) tells Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal) the story of two old men he knew growing up. They lived together on a ranch until one was killed in brutal fashion. As Ennis says, if their love takes hold of them in the wrong place they could wind up dead.

Ennis and Jack meet when they are hired to herd sheep in the Wyoming mountains. Slowly, between the nearly silent Ennis and the more personable Jack, a friendship forms. Ennis talks — more, we suspect, than he ever has to anyone. And Jack finds an admiring audience for his tales of the rodeo. After one night of drunkenness, a cold Ennis ends up in Jack’s tent and, after some awkward fumbling, the men have sex.

Neither seems to know quite what to make of it, so they decide to make nothing of it — both say they aren’t gay but accept that this is what they’ll do here. Free (generally) of any prying eyes, they decide to enjoy each other’s company and give in to their summer of love Brokeback Mountain.

Summer ends and the men part. Four years later, each has married — Jack to sassy rodeo star Lureen (Anne Hathaway) and Ennis to country girl Alma (Michelle Williams) — and each has children. Jack shows up for a visit and, much to the surprise of both men, their lust begins again instantly. They go first to a hotel and then back to Brokeback, where they decide to make regular “fishing trips” together.

At these times, the men seem the happiest and most relaxed they ever are. Back in the real world, Jack is an unnecessary appendage of his wife’s family, which is dominated by her father who keeps them all in a style to which Jack grows accustomed. Ennis’ relationship with his wife, who caught that first fiery embrace-turned-kiss between Jack and Ennis, slowly deteriorates as she realizes that not only is her life barren and poverty-stricken it is also built on a big fat lie.

Yes, gay cowboys. Yes, they kiss and have sex. And, yes, the “gay thing” is, to some extent, what makes their relationship and this movie extraordinary. But mostly the “gay thing” is what makes the longing (as opposed to the “hey, let’s move in together and enjoy a happy but boring domestic existence”) believable. And then there are the performances, which are so astoundingly good. Gyllenhaal and Ledger — good. Actually, in Ledger’s case, great, which is such an amazing difference from, say, his throwaway performance in Casanova. Hathaway? Pretty amazing for someone best known as the lead in The Princess Diaries. Williams? Michelle Williams of Dawson’s Creek? Fantastic. That’s right — from Van Der Beek costar to Oscar nominee hopeful.

So, yes, the hype is deserved. Brokeback Mountain is as good as everybody says it is. And what shocks you most of all about it is not the man-on-man action (of which there is very little) but the realization that romance can still be romantic.

A