Brokeback Mountain

Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) first meet when they go to Wyoming rancher Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid) to find work. He hires the pair to spend the summer in the mountains herding his sheep and the taciturn cowboys head off to do their jobs. A friendship soon develops between the isolated duo, then something much more in “Brokeback Mountain.”

Laura's Review: A

Ranch hand Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger, "The Brothers Grimm") is a closed and cautious young man planning on marrying his girlfriend Alma (Michelle Williams, "The Baxter") in the fall when he takes a summer job herding sheep along with rodeo cowboy Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal, "Jarhead"). But something unexpected happens - Ennis falls, hard, for Jack and the two cowboys' longing for each other reaches over state lines and decades. Fishing trips offer occasional fulfillment when the two men reconnect on "Brokeback Mountain." Director Ang Lee ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Hulk") once again impresses with his seeming command of such disparate material as his early trilogy exploring the relationships between fathers and their children ("Pushing Hands," "The Wedding Banquet," which also featured a gay protagonist albeit in a romantic comedy, and "Eat Drink Man Woman"), Jane Austen ("Sense and Sensibility"), American suburban angst in the 70s ("The Ice Storm"), Chinese martial arts and comic book super heroes. Now he's broken new ground with Larry McMurtry ("Lonesome Dove") and Diana Ossana's ("Johnson County War") adaptation of the Annie Proulx short story about two men wearing that most macho of labels - the American cowboy - who experience a profound love in a taboo time (the 60s) and place (Wyoming and Texas), and all but the most rabidly homophobic should feel the heartbreak. Both Ledger and Gyllenhaal ring emotionally true, but Ledger, playing the more closed down of the two men, reaches to depths unimaginable from previous performances. Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid, "The Ice Harvest") instructs Ennis to overnight at the camp, but insists that Jack pitch a tent and stay out overnight with the sheep after having experienced large losses the year before. The two men have little in common, meeting at mealtimes which Ennis prepares over campfire, but Jack's amusing show biz streak comes to the fore and he begins to break through to the taciturn Ennis. When empathy for Jack's overnight discomfort keeps them together one night, Jack's move to warm them both quickly overheats and combusts. The disemboweled sheep Ennis finds the next day, killed while the men were having sex, symbolizes both Ennis's guilt and his prediction for their future. Ennis, you see, was taken by his dad at the age of nine to see the corpse left in the wake of a vicious gay bashing, one that may have been at his father's own hand, and it is this childhood trauma that guides the man's refusal to live with Jack. When the men separate, disparaged by Aguirre for the way they've bided their time, it is four long years before they reconnect. Ennis marries Alma and struggles to support her and their two little girls in Wyoming while Jack is scooped up by the daughter of a rich Texan and has a son. Ennis's bottled up joy at hearing from his old friend disturbs Alma, who quickly gleans the truth and divorces him, yet the aging loner still resists Jack's entreaties to establish their own ranch. Jack, frustrated by his lover's unwillingness to pursue happiness, begins seeing other men, but can never shake Brokeback. Ledger, clenching his jaw and rumbling the occasional remark through lips stretched into a tight line, has completely disappeared into this role. He's taken on a look and sound that resembles Michael Rooker ("Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer") and his performance is all the more amazing when contrasted against his upcoming comedic turn as "Casanova." Perhaps his greatest achievement is that although he spends large portions of the film away from Gyllenhaal's Jack, he wears Jack's presence around him like a cloak of sadness. Gyllenhaal's Jack is a less tortured character, having clearly recognized a preference for men before meeting Jack. Gyllenhaal makes Jack a fun-loving guy who has learned how to compromise in life, but his projection of love for Ennis is no less strong. Both actors enjoy some of their strongest scenes apart, however, intercut scenes of confrontational Thanksgivings. Ennis visits Alma and her new husband and she finally unloads her deep-seated hurt at knowing a truth which he reacts violently to. Meanwhile Jack explodes after years of being emasculated by his father-in-law L.D. (Graham Beckel, "Northfork"). (Later, Ennis will have a scene parallel to this scene with Alma with Jack's wife Lureen (Anne Hathaway, "Ella Enchanted") that works below, rather than above, the surface, a beautifully written piece.) There is a wealth of supporting players here, with Williams having the greatest depth as a hopeful and happy young woman who gradually becomes ground down by her unspoken rival. Hathaway is an odd casting choice as a Texan, yet she does surprisingly well portraying a brassy daddy's girl, all dark roots and cigarette smoke. Roberta Maxwell ("Last Night") and Peter McRobbie ("Spider-Man 2") as Jack's aging parents quickly paint a picture of his childhood and Anna Faris ("Scary Movie 3") is amusing as another clueless bride, too busy with her own chatter to note her husband's straying eye. Linda Cardellini of the "Scooby-Doo" movies is good as Cassie, a woman who tries to woo Ennis and Kate Mara of TV's late, lamented "Jack & Bobby" hits and misses as Ennis's eldest daughter Alma. (Mara's last scene with Ledger is strongly reminiscent of "The Beautiful Country's" closing moments between father and son.) As usual, in addition to guiding noteworthy performances, Lee has led a beautiful production. Judy Becker's ("Garden State," "Thumbsucker") production design transports us to the hard scrabble life of rural 1960s Wyoming and the middle class comfort of selling farm machinery in Texas. Rodrigo Prieto's ("21 Grams") cinematography is crisp, yet finds the romance in a herd of sheep reflecting moonlight and the pathos of the worn wallpaper in an old farmhouse. Gustavo Santaolalla's "21 Grams") mournful score is gentle and just right. "Brokeback Mountain" is certainly not what most would define as 'queer cinema,' but instead a most contemporary Western, a thing of raw, aching beauty. Even the Marlboro Man may have been moved.

Robin's Review: B