Review: ‘Brokeback Mountain’

The touching story of two cowboys who shouldn’t have.

Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) is a farmhand looking for work when he runs into Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) looking for work also. After being hired to watch a flock of sheep using illegal tactics requiring them to spend long stretches of time apart and otherwise alone in the wilderness, the time of day when they do finally see one another becomes something more intimate that just the evening’s meal. The two part ways when the job ends, but even though they both go off separately in life to marry and raise children, the two still yearn for one another in ways no one else understands because of that one season spent on Brokeback Mountain.

To be fair, there is so much about this film’s concept to laugh about, and that’s not the film’s only hurdle. Two cowboys (sheepherders, actually) who discover one another while spending a lonely summer together in the middle of nowhere. What will bring them together? Seeing one another bathing in a mountain stream? Spooning for body heat? Animal instinct taking over like wolves mounting one another for sport? It either sound all to ridiculous to actually happen or too clich?©; all of it could be the makings of an outdoors comedy (or, with names like ‘Ennis’ and ‘Jack Twist’ even an underground porno). Instead, each moment is slowly built up and treated with dignity right until the shock of it actually (and graphically) happening slips right past the incidental humor and runs head first into the awkwardness afterward.

Director Ang Lee loves a tragedy (he said as much when interviewed about his Hulk), and Brokeback Mountain is exactly that. In terms of pure story, there’s really nothing new here because the drama is generated from the fact that this relationship is doomed from the start; it’s a matter of when, not if. What elevates the film into anything extraordinary (aside from the breathtaking “big sky” shots of the Midwest flats and mountain ranges) is the performances of those involved. It’s a forbidden romance between two unlikely romantics, and there are those out there who don’t take kindly to that kind of kindness.

Jake Gyllenhaal has proven himself over and over as a character chameleon, able to completely transform himself from role to role and rarely duplicating his performance. It will be Heath Ledger, however, who’ll go up for any Lead Actor award instead of Supporting simply due to screen time, but his performance isn’t quite up to Gyllenhaal since it looks like Ledger is working harder on his accent than his character. The good news is that this gives ample opportunity for [tag]Michelle Williams[/tag] (as Del Mar’s wife) to shine as a woman who suspects she’s not enough for the man she loves, and [tag]Anne Hathaway[/tag] stars as a barrel rider who ropes herself a trophy in Jack Twist but ultimately remains content in her partnership regardless of Twist’s preferences.

Brokeback Mountain’s edge is its same-sex controversy, but the cast is what keeps it sharp. It’s been said that director Ang Lee chooses not to individually direct his cast once its chosen, instead permitting his actors to find their character alone instead of insisting upon who or what they are. That kind of filmmaking puts all the pressure on the cast (and the casting director, of course), but since Ang Lee is the one putting his name on the picture, the final product looks like he made the right choice.

(a three skull recommendation out of four)

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