It's just a year after the film "Ride the High Country" was released in 1962 that two fictional cowboys, Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist fall in love in Ang Lee's new movie, "Brokeback Mountain." Ennis and Jack---played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal---have no idea who Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea are; or for that matter, who the hell Sam Peckinpah is. Neither do Ennis and Jack know that they're two young, masculine characters who leap from the closet into each others arms; thereby giving us the opportunity to explore the shadows of a male relationship that so many other movies have only allowed but a slender ray of illumination, i.e. "Ride the High Country" or, the considerably more blatant 1969 film, "Midnight Cowboy," directed by John Schlesinger.
The hook for Lee's motion picture, plain and simple, is its tender, sad story about something that's probably as common as an old boot, but seldom if ever revealed, unless a man wants to get his ass whupped or killed by some other "good old" homophobic boys. Conversely and curiously, what we also have here is a movie that will deeply affect young women, especially straight women. That's because two young, straight women are pretty much victimized by their plight with these men as their husbands are victimized by society to "Don't tell!"
The men disagree on how to handle the future. Jack wants to let it all hang out, terminate other associations, get a little spread out in the middle of nowhere and settle down with Ennis. But Ennis, much less outgoing, is more pragmatic. He knows living such a life with Jack would be a terrible mistake. When Ennis was a child, his father shows him the battered remains of a sod-buster who took up with another man and paid the "price."
Annie Proulx's short story is opened up considerably by Ang Lee's two screenwriters: Diana Ossana and the legendary Larry McMurtry, a guy who's given us some really great moments of Western lore. Remember "The Last Picture Show," "Lonesome Dove" and "Hud?"
The exposition and development of the bond between Ennis and Jack take up the first third of "Brokeback Mountain."And although we get a really stunning dose of the natural beauty of the Wyoming Rockies (shot in Alberta), where their love affair blossoms, almost in an adagio tempo, the rest of their story begs an earlier entrance. Lee's film would seem less self indulgent with about a quarter hour removed, most of which would easily be edited from the film's first third.
After Ennis and Jack establish their concealed association, both head off in different directions and start living the straight life. Almost, that is, except for occasional surreptitious "fishing trips" together. On their first reunion after being together on Brokeback, the pair's effusive and passionate embraces are accidently and covertly observed by Ennis' wife (Michelle Williams). She is devastated and very confused for a rural wife of the mid 60's. Meanwhile, down deep in the heart of Texas, Jack's wife (Anne Hathaway) hasn't the foggiest notion that her husband really doesn't like fishing that much.
The love scenes with Ledger and Gyllenhaal are not gratuitous, but there isn't any doubt left as to what's going on between them physically. And for those who find such cinematic situations unpleasant to watch, there are also, if you will, other moments of heterosexuality which give the film, I guess, a sense of balance. As Ennis might be heard to utter in his resonate ranch hand vernacular, "Ya pays yur money and ya takes yur churse."
The acting is solid all the way around, especially with Ledger and Hathaway, but they have the best parts to play, too. Veteran good old boy, Randy Quaid gives a quick turn as the taciturn and very stern sheep owner who hires on Ennis and Jack to keep summer watch over his sheep up on Brokeback. Later on, Randy gets a glimpse of the young shepherds carrying on in the wild, allowing for some very good old boy moments on the part of the hefty Quaid.
"Brokeback Mountain," indeed, isn't a picture for good old boys, whatever their age, because it's about an aspect in the natural order of things that also includes, much to their chagrin, good old boys. They believe they should be excluded and may well be acting out their real life roles as good old boys to insure that that's just what most folks think they are.
If Sam Peckinpah were alive today, he would make a great guest on The Larry King Show. If he could stay sober long enough, Sam could talk about what has become of the Western and, maybe, how he would've directed "Brokeback Mountain" differently. I would definitely watch and maybe even call CNN.
Opened 1/6 at the AMC Southroads 20.
Gary Chew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Copyright © 2006, Gary Chew. All rights reserved.