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Brokeback Mountain   A-

Focus Features / River Road Entertainment

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Ang Lee
Writers: Larry McMurtry, Diana Ossana (based on the short story by Annie Proulx)
Cast: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Randy Quaid, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway, Linda Cardellini, Anna Faris, Kate Mara.

Review by Rob Vaux

One of the reasons queer cinema -- that is, movies involving queer characters or queer issues -- struggles for mainstream success is that too many of its filmmakers limit themselves to that one word: queer. They feel that their job is done simply by bringing queer characters to the screen, without developing how or why we should care about them beyond that. The films thus become ciphers for political issues rather than stories about real people, obscuring the inherent power of drama with specified and transient controversies. Agenda filmmaking is all well and good, but it can be a very hard sell, even among those who welcome a queer perspective. A few directors have cracked the code (Todd Haynes comes to mind), but even they have to battle against preconceived notions, and their impact is limited to a cultish, art-house success at best. Considering the richness that queer critical theory has brought to more mainstream movies, it's a real shame that queer filmmaking can't keep up.

Brokeback Mountain is a landmark because it has transcended all that. It has ignited a national discussion (mostly positive, since the Christian right has kept noticeably silent), grossed over $22 million (and counting) in a comparatively tiny number of theaters, and is in the process of gobbling up year-end awards left and right. Regardless of its fate at the Oscars, it has left an indelible mark upon the cultural landscape. How? Simply by treating its central romance as a relationship first and a gay relationship second. It presents the characters as people, rather than issues, and in the process illuminates their condition the way no soapbox polemic ever could.

It starts with Heath Ledger, playing laconic Wyoming cowboy Ennis Del Mar. His world doesn't allow for the kind of love he stumbles into -- almost by accident -- with fellow rancher Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal). He has little education and a naturally quiet temperament that prevents him from expressing himself verbally; the film is defined by his struggle to tell others what lies in his heart. He doesn't deny his feelings, yet neither can he voice them to anyone else -- anyone except Jack, whose love becomes his strongest anchor to emotional truth. He follows it -- but only fitfully and with supreme caution -- through several decades after their first meeting, stealing fishing trips and hotel rooms several times a year while leaving behind a fractious marriage and children to whom he can never entirely relate. It's a two-edged sword, for while it saves him from the very real dangers of homosexual romance (dangers that the wilder Jack is more willing to brave), it also keeps him from fully realizing his true love, leaving both he and Jack ultimately unfulfilled.

Director Ang Lee is uniquely suited to revealing such a figure, augmenting Ledger's outstandingly restrained performance with the clinical distance that defines his oeuvre. His detachment from the characters is one of the film's few weaknesses, keeping us at arms' length perhaps a bit more than we need to be. But it also creates a compulsive pull, arousing our interest and compassion even as it prevents us from approaching too close. Gyllenhaal serves as the perfect yin to Ledger's yang, and the chemistry between the two is positively nuclear. Together, they create a relationship that is redolent with human fragility -- our fears, our hopes, our need for comfort and belonging, and the way that the things we wish for have a way of turning around and biting us in the ass. Above all, it is a portrait of two people who we believe in and relate to -- three-dimensional figures devoid of stereotype or preconception.

And that's the trick. By seemingly renouncing overt politics, it makes a case for tolerance and understanding far more effectively than a film with a more direct agenda. Augmented by some outstanding technical aspects (DP Rodrigo Prieto delivers western vistas worthy of John Ford, and Gustavo Santaolalla's score is one of the best of the year), the romance becomes utterly sublime -- and in the process, renders inert the notion of "straight vs. gay." Love is love, Brokeback Mountain tells us: beautiful, painful, empowering, and tragic. The fact that it comes between two men makes it no different or less real than any other great love. We see it here in a way no other movie in history has yet accomplished: haunting, compelling, and profound. With the taboos it shatters, its success suggests -- perhaps for the first time -- that queer cinema can finally emerge from the art-house ghetto, and that stories like this might one day be as common and accepted as Julia Roberts movies. It's a heady, exhilarating possibility... and if it ever comes to pass, we'll have Brokeback Mountain to thank for opening the door.

Review published 01.13.2006.

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