The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, October 11, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Brokeback Mountain

Originally published 12/14/05
Full review behind the jump

Brokeback Mountain

: Ang Lee
: Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, based on the short story by Annie Proulx
: Diana Ossana and James Schamus
: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway, Randy Quaid

Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) talks for twenty seconds, maybe even less – just a couple of sentences on the topic of a rough itinerant upbringing and the family he’s lost connection with. Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) prods him: “
That’s more words than you’ve spoken in the last two weeks.” Ennis gives a good reply: “That’s more words than I’ve spoken in the last two years.

Brokeback Mountain
, a towering and tragic romance set against small towns, high country, and breathtaking vistas in mid-century America, is about profound stories that are hinted at in brief sentences, and aching passions that express themselves in quick gestures. When Ennis gropes for words to describe to Jack what’s evolved between them and settles for “This thing ‘t grabs hold of us.”, it is minimal but the more poetic for how right it is. Ennis insists he’s not gay, and in a sense we can see his point of view. It’s not that he categorically prefers men sexually, it’s that Jack, and only Jack, opens him up to desires and needs he never sensed within himself. And no matter how many times they’ll separate, this thing, this joyous and desperate thing, will always grab hold of them again.

Their story begins in 1960’s Wyoming, where the two are hired by rancher Aguirre (Randy Quaid) to camp with his herd of sheep and keep the wolves away as they graze at high altitude. Ennis is hunched and taciturn, almost the perfect iconic portrait of the American cowboy. Jack is more wide-eyed, looks like he’s got something to prove; he’s not sure what, but anything will do.

What happens during those lonely months starts delicately at first but finally arrives in a torrent (a literal one, too, as the rains pour outside their tent). It is beyond any analysis or understanding, but the pure intimacy of it is real to us and shattering to them – gay or straight it is rare to see a love this strong performed this authentically.

We could spend an entire movie in this one summer – the one after which, the cliché goes, nothing was ever the same – but we move forward and see the shape of the next twenty years for these men as they separate, build lives, try to forget and fail. Ennis marries his sweetheart Alma (Michelle Williams), and from the speed with which a baby appears one could reasonably accuse him of also having something to prove. Jack moves south to Texas, lives hand-to-mouth on the rodeo circuit and finally catches the eager eye of Lureen (Anne Hathaway), daughter of a successful tractor dealer.

At times you will be sure Jack misses Ennis more, or the other way around. It becomes moot – events conspire to prove to them their feelings have grown only more intense. The wives in this movie both give extraordinary performances – each comes to the knowledge they are not their husbands’ deepest love by different means, each deals with it in their own fashion. Listen to the way, near the end, that the socially-conscious Lureen recites a well-rehearsed lie to someone who doesn’t need it, watch how much Alma is willing to suffer before deciding she can’t anymore. Everyone suffers in a world where what these two men might want most is the most forbidden.

This film is a redemption for Ang Lee, who lost himself in the demands of the summer blockbuster Hulk but here achieves perfection – wedding the performance and the pictorial so each enhances the other. The yawning landscapes of Calgary, standing in for Wyoming, quietly lend weight and strength to Jack and Ennis’ bond, and there’s not a moment where the rhythm or tone feels false or forced. This is giant talent working at its absolute peak, all bending their artistry in the service of Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana’s sparse and delicate screenplay.

The strongest plaudits are due Ledger – who has always demonstrated charisma and energy on camera but has never so thoroughly disappeared into a role. Ennis Del Mar is a complete creation, from the way he talks rumbling through his clenched jaw to the way he finally, painfully, makes the hardest decision of his life: to not to be lonely anymore. It is his unexpected surrender to his feelings that breaks the heart over and over again, and his conviction which rests at the heart of the movie’s triumph.

Thoughts of the political implications of this work, its statements about ignorance, tend to wilt away – it is not an issue movie, not a polemic. It is simply a love story, and one of the best you may ever see.


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