“Brokeback Mountain” is a beautiful movie. Think back to all the attention paid to the first films that touched race, anti-Semitism, alcoholism – forces that threaded through our culture but were simply not recognized publicly. A similar wave of publicity engulfs this first major mainstream movie about love between men. In the delicate hands of director Ang Lee, the movie is not just a first, but also a best.
In a myriad of ways, Mr. Lee builds a story of love between two men. This is 1963; two young western drifters are hired as a sheepherder and a camp tender who fall in love in Wyoming where decades later, Matthew Shepard would be tied to a fence and left to die. Mr. Lee had no intention of making a film about gay sex where story is incidental. He has made instead a story about love (based on the New Yorker story by Annie Proulx).
The initial sex happens suddenly, in a spontaneous moment surrounded by roughhousing that covers the surprise of the men at what they are doing. It recurs over the years, along with a mutual love that lasts for the rest of their lives. Conveying the power of male sex is the easier part of this story. Moving us with the emotion of these men is quite another. Both Heath Ledger, who plays Ennis Del Mar, and Jake GyllenhaalI, as Jack Twist are entirely credible as two men who try hard to build other lives, but can’t.
The Grand Tetons of Wyoming (actually filmed in Canada) are majestic in scale and desolate in their emptiness. Wyoming is a tough place to make a living. Tiny bits of civilization are dwarfed by the landscape unlike the Rockies where man has planted himself in scattered mountain towns. People scratch for a living where few people need their skills. Their dreary houses stand in dull contrast to the beauty around them. When Ennis and Jack steal time together once or twice a year on Brokeback Mountain, they are alone in the world. Brokeback is all they have together. Their families wait for them below, and the world down there is hostile. This is an era when men are judged by their manliness, a landscape where toughness of spirit and body is tradition. Even years later, the myth of the West still held.
Alma (Michelle Williams) and Lureen (Anne Hathaway) are the wives – one who knows, one who doesn’t – who must live with the inevitable and impenetrable distance that separates them from their husbands. The absence of domestic argument becomes another strength of the movie. These women are not angry; they are bewildered and sad.
The fact that a theater is moved to silence throughout the movie is a tribute to Ang Lee’s direction and to the subtle, powerful acting of Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, and a fine supporting cast. They succeed in reminding us that love is where you find it, forget everything else.
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