Breaking with tradition

BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN: Directed by Ang Lee. Written by Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry, based on a short story by E. Annie Proulx. Produced by James Schamus, Diana Ossana. Executive producers, William Pohlad, Michael Costigan, Michael Hausman, Larry McMurtry, Alberta Film Entertainment. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto. Editors Dylan Tichenor, Geraldine Peroni. Composer Gustavo Santaolalla. Production design, Judy Becker. Costumes, Marit Allen. Starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. With Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway, Randy Quaid. River Road Entertainment. Focus Features, 2005. R. 134 minutes. Best Picture: 2005 Berlin Film Festival, L.A. Film Critics Association, Boston Society of Film Critics, New York Film Critics Circle, San Francisco Film Critics Circle. Best Director for Ang Lee by film critics in L.A., Boston, New York, San Francisco and the National Board of Review.

Director Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain is true to its movie genre, in which conflict arises between free spirits (cowboys, outlaws, entrepreneurs) and those who have exchanged some measure of freedom for safety and security (homesteaders, large-ranch owners, lawmen, merchants, small-town citizens, particularly women). Here two sheepherders fall in love in the rugged high country but cannot bring their relationship into the critical light of the heartland sun where they live.

The disconnect between wild nature and traditional culture manifests in 1963, when Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) go to work for a big—shot rancher, Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid), herding sheep in the Wyoming mountains. Ennis and Jack accidentally fall in love that summer. Each tries to brush away their uncalculated, awkward bonding born of loneliness and need. Before summer’s over, they have grown comfortable together, but Ennis has promised to marry, and he will keep his commitment.

One of the most startling and beautiful scenes in the film comes early, when Jack and Ennis are still strangers. As they herd the sheep up the jagged mountains to the higher pasture, a vista opens up. Below is a rushing river, white-water full, winding through a small canyon. Almost parallel to the river on the undulating sweep of Brokeback Mountain, a river of living sheep spreads out to fill every contour of the land, always moving onward and upward. This is a stunning sight, one which the working cowboys view from horseback with practiced eyes.

The film makes no judgments about the love between the two men or the pedestrian life they embrace apart from one another. Few American writers capture the essence of small Western towns better than Larry McMurtry (The Last Picture Show, Lonesome Doves), who collaborates here with his partner, Diana Ossana. Town life is presented just so, as it is, neither romanticized nor ironically smirked at. The original writer, Annie Proulx (The Shipping News), prefers her stories plain, too.

Ennis marries his old girlfriend, Alma (Michelle Williams), and they have two girls pretty quickly. But it’s hard for Ennis to make a good living, even after Alma goes back to work at the local grocery store. Jack bums around rodeos, riding broncos until he meets and marries Lureen (Anne Hathaway) in Texas. She’s the sweetheart of the rodeo and a rich girl. Jack goes to work for her daddy selling farm equipment.

From the first time Jack invites him to go fishing on Brokeback Mountain until the end of the film, Ennis is preoccupied with their relationship. Devoted to their children when they’re home, these men at their best are not hands-on dads. Alma suffers after she sees her husband and Jack kiss. Their passion deeply embitters her. Lureen doesn’t know what’s going on, but later she also becomes bitter about her marriage.

A haunting work, Brokeback Mountain speaks to the intense social pressure to conform felt by boys and men that is not limited to gays. For example, in another of 2005’s best films, A History of Violence, the sensitive teenaged son in the family is routinely humiliated by the school bully. Jarhead directly addresses conformity and its consequences for some men in the volunteer army. Crash‘s racist cop uses his savage heterosexuality to humble a proud black man. And Kung-Fu Hustle has way too much fun allowing the movie’s designated wimp to grow into the hero who saves the neighborhood.

Excellent performances by Ledger and Gyllenhaal enliven every scene they are in together. Ledger shows Ennis covering up his feelings, but Gyllenhaal allows Jack to express it all. Both their desire and their pain are palpable. This great, humanistic love story opens Friday, Jan. 13 at Cinemark and Cinema World. See Brokeback Mountain. It belongs at the top of 2005’s best films. Very highest recommendations.