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’Pokes peek
Heath Ledger scales Brokeback Mountain
BY PETER KEOUGH
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN
Directed by Ang Lee | Written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana based on the story by Anne Proulx | With Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, Michelle Williams, and Randy Quaid | A Focus Features release | 134 minutes | AVON + FLAGSHIP + SHOWCASE WARWICK


"Controversy" sells tickets, as long as it’s not controversial. Such hot-button films as the recent Syriana and the upcoming Munich purport to take on tough issues but in fact merely tart up generic fare with innocuous pretenses. Brokeback Mountain, the "gay cowboy movie," has built up a saucy reputation, moving the suddenly prim Madonna to declare it "shocking." But by the time viewers realize that it has less sex than the average PG-13 movie about heterosexual love, they’ll be drawn to it as a tearjerker. Credit a consummate performance by Heath Ledger and limpid, unmanipulative direction by Ang Lee for the year’s most affecting romantic movie.

Figuring, no doubt correctly, that more people will identify with loss than with gay lust, Lee gets the icky parts over quickly. Not only is it the love that dare not speak its name, it doesn’t speak at all. The film’s opening five minutes present a wordless mating dance as cocky kid Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and a worried-looking Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) wait to apply for a job herding sheep for the winter. It’s 1964 and Wyoming, so Jack’s attraction to Ennis is limited to sidelong glances in his pick-up’s rear-view mirror, and Ennis’s shrunken body language screams repression. Later, tending the flock on the title peak, the pair eat beans and swap bits of their lives. Lee plays coy with the cliché’d lead-in to their first clinch. Will it be the nursing-of-the-wound scene or the campfire-has gone-out-come-share-the-tent moment? When it does arrive, it’s as blunt and sexless as a two-by-four, and during the rest of their idyll, they exchange more blows than blow jobs. The film seems to take a Rick Santorum approach to sexuality: if they hadn’t turned to each other, maybe they’d have resorted to the sheep. Nothing to upset that big Red State Market.

Once off the mountain they part, and real life begins. Ennis marries pretty Alma (Michelle Williams), who gives him daughters, bills, and non-comprehension. Jack appears to fare better, hitching up with cowgirl Lureen (Anne Hathaway) and landing an emasculating sinecure in her father’s company. The years pass, and Jack’s callowness deteriorates into dandyism; mustachio’d and duded up, he looks like a weedy version of Rock Hudson in Giant. And except for the occasional explosion of rage and frustration, Ennis shrivels up like a weathered saddlebag.

They have their get-togethers over the years, "fishing trips" that arouse the unstated suspicions of their spouses. These serve mostly to remind them, and the viewer, of the hopelessness of love and the inevitability of loss. Although he does indulge in the occasional, obligatory reference to The Searchers (tiny figures on horseback dwarfed by landscape; doors opening from dim interiors into radiant wilderness), Lee remains as laconic as his heroes. The simple authenticity of the gestures — the gift of a shirt near the end of the film will tear up the most hardened or homophobic — almost compensates for the lack of anything to back them up.


Issue Date: January 6 - 12, 2005
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