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Directed by Ang Lee
The cultural pressure placed on “Brokeback Mountain” to be a commercial and artistic success has been, to say the least, staggering. Perhaps unfairly, renaissance-man director Ang Lee (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) and his two cowboys are expected to deliver the “Big Gay Love Story”—epic, sexy, tear-jerking, and with just enough political consciousness to please its liberal target audience.
I’ve always been a fan of the devil’s advocate position, but I’m a greater fan of honesty, and in that vein I have to say it—“Brokeback Mountain” is an absolutely phenomenal film, a sublime work of beauty with an ache at its core so enveloping you hardly notice it until you try to stand up at its somber end.
I would have imagined difficulty in praising the film this much, considering the gooey and ridiculous media discourse. But upon finally seeing it, all the talk seems trivial. It’s an unexpectedly complex rumination on love and sexuality in a uniquely American context, where the tangible beauty of our mythic West collides with the hidden sores of a repressive social order. Lee’s film is incredibly literary, stunningly photographed, and features flawless performances from its typically unimpressive cast.
The film’s screenplay is its greatest strength, despite its relative simplicity. Based on a short story by Annie Proulx and adapted by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, the film has a literary punch rarely seen in Hollywood films. The dialogue is limited but pointed, and the script is more interested in calling up powerful symbols (the men’s shirts, Ennis’s mailbox) rather than unwieldy monologues to dramatize the characters’ grief.
McMurtry and Ossana made the smart decision to give incredible freedom to Lee and his actors. More is said on Anne Hathaway’s face in her last scene than the sum of all the film’s naturalistic and appropriately sparse dialogue.
Its lazy passage of time illuminates the characters’ cyclical misery as well. The plot jumps from year to year without the use of intertitles, as if the pain of Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis’ (Heath Ledger) thwarted love exists on a continuum parallel to the emptiness of the Western skylines that dominate the film. If “Brokeback Mountain” says anything about rural America, it shows us that the dusty landscapes are crammed with repression and fear.
Ledger, Gyllenhaal, Hathaway, and Dawson’s Creek starlet Michelle Williams all give exceptional performances, particularly considering their anemic previous appearances. Williams is especially remarkable as Ennis’s wife, a character who is both angry at her husband’s infidelity and sympathetic for the trap he’s in. The acting isn’t as “daring” as you might have heard, but this is hardly a fault. The performances are very committed, and never showy.
“Brokeback Mountain” this week has picked up the top prize from the Los Angeles, New York, and Boston Film Critics Circles, and garnered seven Golden Globe nominations. Perhaps for the first time in recent memory we can say a film is truly deserving of these accolades. Fear not—the “Big Gay Movie” is a rousing success. So much so that you’ll probably start calling it by its actual name.
—Staff writer Clint J. Froehlich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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