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December 14-20, 2005

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Brokeback Mountain

Photograph by Kimberly French
Flock Buddies: Heath Ledger (left) and Jake Gyllenhaal bound in the high country.

Two Rode Together

'Brokeback Mountain': Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in a romance that'll frighten a few horses

By Richard von Busack

OH, HOW IT stung to read Annie Proulx's short story Brokeback Mountain, but the film version only rates a few sighs. Two young men from the whereabouts of Signal, Wyo., sign up for a summer's shepherding on Brokeback Mountain in 1963: Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) is raffish, a rodeo performer who wears a black hat. Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) is closed off, and silent. He's a landless orphan.

While the countryside is splendid, the work isn't. Wide shots make flocks of sheep look like white grubs on the side of the mountain. No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the woolies. The two riders spend the summer staving off coyotes, eating beans out of a can and shivering through the cold end of the summer.

And as the world knows by now, the unthinkable happens: These two cowboys end up in the same sleeping bag. When they get back to civilization, they try to pick up their straight lives. Jack is haunted with the thought that the word might have got out (their sulfurous bastard of a boss, Randy Quaid, saw them wrassling).

Soon, Jack gets roped by a quick-moving cowgirl, Lureen (Anne Hathaway). Incidentally, there ought to be a law that in a love story between two men, the best sex scene won't be heterosexual. Ledger's Del Mar marries Alma (Michelle Williams), who becomes a prairie ball and chain. As the years go by, the wives decay, worn by disappointment.

Lureen turns into a dull, status-seeking farm-equipment princess, and she is fiendishly made up with Ginzu nails and Dolly Parton wigs. Alma—whose cherrylike lips get chapped up badly by the high plains wind—becomes a mommy, a drudge at a grocery store and religious, in that order.

And the two men can only go back to their youth on the fishing trips they take with each other. Cowboy reticence—their knowledge of what isn't done—keeps them from living with each other.

Insert here a page's worth of the inescapable fretting in newsprint over whether we're ready for gay cowboys, whether it will hurt Ledger's career to be seen kissing Gyllenhaal or the other way around. All this ruckus, so many years after South Park's Eric Cartman observed, "All independent movies are about gay cowboys eating pudding." (The bigoted Cartman is probably referring to Big Eden. It was fancy gourmet desserts, not pudding.)

It is difficult to think of Brokeback Mountain as a breakthrough in the gay-friendly Bay Area, even if there's as much of a danger of being murdered for your sexuality here as there is anywhere.

Still, we can't confuse hype or noble intentions with what's onscreen. Brokeback Mountain is laid on thick. Director Ang Lee introduces two Matthew Shepherd figures, when one was enough. And the frankness of the male-male sex scene is merely frank.

It is as explanatory of the technique as Lee was of all the other techniques he shows us—how to cache food, how to saddle horses, how to tend the sheep. The scene may set off alarms in Middle America, but it doesn't set off any alarms below the belt. (Like the tormenting of Aslan in the Narnia movie, the love scene between Ledger and Gyllenhaal is an example of misplaced literalism in a mythic setting.)

Watching this movie, Redford and Newman are going to wish they'd had the guts to make it when they were young. Ledger is perfect, poker-faced and iconic, masking his loneliness; he's like Steve McQueen reborn as a more expressive actor. (He has a marvelous scene of choking in tears by himself, but coming to long enough to snarl at a passer-by who notices him crying.) Still, Jake and Ennis become such different people as the years pass, it's a surprise they don't grow apart.

The last third of Brokeback Mountain starts to stalemate into Same Time Next Year. The two characters seem oblivious to the changing of the times (and the times were changing drastically by the mid-1970s).

Just to keep the chronology straight, by the time Jack sports a mustache and sideburns, the Village People were wearing them, too. True, this may be Lee's way of adding tension: the gay ghetto of the cities could be an escape hatch that Jake and Ennis may or may not choose to take.

Larry McMurtry (and his long-time collaborator Diana Ossana) bring something to Lee's expansion of the compact, tragic original story. And that is the tragedy of the prejudices of the West. The horizons stretch beyond limit, but the men who live there can't be freed from their mind-forged chains.

This idea, tried and true in dozens of Westerns, works better than anything else in Brokeback Mountain. In the opening shot we see a wide, wide mountain range making an 18-wheel truck into a toy moving slowly across the valley. In the last shot, the title mountain—exemplifying A.E. Housman's "land of lost content"—is reduced to nothing but the image on a postcard.

Brokeback Mountain is almost there. Lee's choice of always showing Ennis in a truck's rearview mirror is seriously poignant. I'm an easy crier at cowboy movies—I even dissolved at The Hi-Lo Country—but all I got here was a hay-feverish sniffle.

Movie Times Brokeback Mountain (R; 134 min.), directed by Ang Lee, written by Larry McMurty and Diana Ossana, based on the book by Annie Proulx, photographed by Rodrigo Prieto and starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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