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Friday
Jun242011

Brokeback Mountain

I suppose everyone knows by now that this film tells of two young cowboy-hatted blokes, Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal), who fall in love atop Wyoming’s Brokeback Mountain one summer in 1963 while left alone to herd sheep; and that it’s a tale of doomed love.   I’d expected it to yank sharply on the heartstrings but among its surprises is that it’s actually quite a quiet, restrained piece.    

After that summer, years pass in which Jack and Ennis are obliged to accumulate wives and kids.   But they reunite, rekindling their romance and establishing a tradition of an annual reunion up on Brokeback.   Peripherally, we see Ennis’ daughters grow into young women.   We watch as the high-spirited, glowing rodeo cowgirl (Anne Hathaway) whom Jack marries becomes a staid businesswoman, sedately accepting a passionless marriage.  

Perhaps the most salient aspect of Ennis’ character, even more than his sexual preference, is his inability ever to forsake his shell.   He’s distant, non-verbal, can’t commit; in other words, every inch a typical guy.   The most moving scene for me was the final one, in which Ennis, now leading a solitary existence in a trailer, is visited by his sweet daughter, now 19.   She tells him that she’s to be married.   He asks her a question about her fiancé, whom he has never met.   It’s a simple one but it gets to the heart of the matter: does he love you?   Yes, comes the answer; and Ledger makes us feel by the pursing of his lips that, were he verbal, Ennis might tell her that that’s good; that to be loved is all he could possibly want for her.  

Ennis and Jack throw off all stereotypes of gay men; there’s nothing remotely effeminate or prissy about them.   They have wives and kids, showing that one's sexuality isn’t really a matter of what one does so much as it is of what one prefers.   Cowboys of course are icons of American manhood; these many, many years into the gay liberation movement, it shouldn’t be regarded as subversive to show that such men can be gay.   However, the film’s critique remains pertinent of a culture which, though it famously enshrines the pursuit of happiness, can be profoundly conformist.   To be different -- to break the culture's rules for masculinity -- is still too often to court hatred and even violence.   (Graphic violence in the film is limited to but the briefest of flashes.)

A word should be said about Gyllenhaal’s Jack, with his shy, lopsided grin and kind eyes.   And that this film is best seen on a big screen to experience the full impact of an American beauty lovingly captured by director Ang Lee, of green mountainsides which the flock of sheep stream down like a mighty river.   Based on a short story by Annie Proulx originally published in the New Yorker.   Essential viewing.    

- Jan 30, 2006

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