Profound. Transcendent. Heartbreaking. Not exactly adjectives one would expect to describe a motion picture that has been unfairly labeled "that gay cowboy movie" ever since the project was announced, but "Brokeback Mountain" is all of these things and more. Directed with unsentimental emotion and an unshakable weight of sadness by Ang Lee (2003's "Hulk
"), the film is a deeply felt love story between two men (this fact, unfortunately, is bound to turn off some for reasons unknown), but demands to be seen by anyone who is a fan of great, cleanly plotted storytelling. That's not all it is, either. Perhaps most powerful of all is the way screenwriters Larry McMurtry (1971's "The Last Picture Show") and Diana Ossana have adapted Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Proulx's economical thirty-page short story into a tragic, multilayered rumination on the way people, whether by choice or poor circumstances, too often allow the things that will make them most happy in their lives to pass them by.
Youthful out-of-work ranch hands Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Swift (Jake Gyllenhaal) first meet in 1963 when they are paired together to drive sheep across the mountainous Wyoming terrain during the summer months. Slowly but surely, the wild and outgoing Jack and the soft-spoken, reserved Ennis begin talking and hit it off. They have nothing else to do by themselves in the wilderness but get to know each other, after all, but one bitterly cold night as they are trying to keep warm in their tent, they share an awkward and rough sexual encounter. "That was a one-shot deal," Ennis tells Jack the next day. "I ain't no queer." Jack is quick to second that declaration, but the next night they find themselves together again, this time kissing for the first time. The bond between them feels right, and both parties know it, but Ennis is sure that whatever is between them can go no further once they return to civilization. "Maybe in another place, in another time," he says when Jack suggests that they continue their relationship.
When their summer job is over, they part ways, with Ennis marrying longtime sweetheart Alma (Michelle Williams) and having two children, and Jack marrying wealthy Texas rodeo gal Lureen (Anne Hathaway) and having a baby of their own. Four years pass until the two meet againJack says he is passing through Wyoming for a few days, but it is clear he has come to see Ennisand the old passion instantly reignites between them like it never left. As the years tick by and their meetings become semi-regular, Jack makes it known that he would give up his life and career at Lureen's father's farm equipment business if it meant they could be together. Ennis is set in his beliefs, however, that their partnership can only mean danger if others found out, putting into jeopardy their one chance at finally following their hearts.
"Brokeback Mountain" is leisurely paced, taking a good twenty minutes to really get going and find its footing, but its slow simmer of a buildup is necessary to make Ennis and Jack's first physical connection as startling and messy to the viewer as it is for them. Jack, the more open of the two, doesn't hide the way he feels, and there are suggestions that he has more experience on the matter. Ennis, on the other hand, who may or may not have ever had homosexual feelings before, is far more confused and conflicted by the emotions that suddenly come boiling to the surface when he is with Jack. Are they soul mates? Undoubtedly. Can they ever really have the kind of relationship they deserve? Probably not. They are calamitous victims of time stuck in a narrow-minded world of the 1950s and '60s where homosexuality was wholly unaccepted and something never spoken about. It is this very quandary that director Ang Lee captures with such truth and clarity, and he does a fine job also in portraying the passage of twenty years through subtle detailsmusic, costumes, hairstylewithout ever causing the narrative to feel episodic.
The performances from every cast member are stellar, with Heath Ledger (2005's "Lords of Dogtown
") leading the fray in a transformative turn as Ennis Del Ray. While on the screen, Ledger the actor ceases to exist; he seemingly becomes his character through a brilliantly modulated symphony of speech, body language, and the kind of transparent emotions that can be glimpsed both internally and externally. As Jack Twist, Jake Gyllenhaal's (2005's "Jarhead
") role is less complex, if only because he is more comfortable and in touch with his feelings, but that doesn't make his performance any less remarkably nuanced. One suspects that he ultimately marries Lureen out of forfeit; that doesn't mean that he doesn't love her in his own way, but it does mean that he can't love her the way he should, or the way she would like him to.
As wives Lureen and Alma, Anne Hathaway (2004's "Ella Enchanted
") and Michelle Williams (2004's "The United States of Leland
") are revelations in their own way. Neither is as dumb as Ennis and Jack would like them to be, and are written as fleshed-out human beings with their own hopes, dreams and regrets. Both actresses are given particular moments to shine, with Williams remarkable with only a facial expression when she secretly catches Ennis and Jack in a romantic embrace. This weight is one that Alma chooses to carry around with her for years after in an attempt to save her family, but she is bound to eventually break her silence. The scene, filled with pent-up anger and remorse, is simply stunning, with Williams playing it just right. Hathaway's standout moment comes late, during a key phone conversation she shares with Ennis, and the look on her face says it all. In smaller, but notable, roles, Linda Cardellini (2004's "Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed
") is poignant and fresh as a girlfriend of Ennis' whose feelings for him go unreciprocated, and Anna Faris (2005's "Just Friends
") has a very funny scene-stealing cameo as a motormouthed friend of Lureen's.
Breathtakingly photographed by Rodrigo Prietothe untouched wide open spaces of Alberta, Canada, standing in for Wyoming, are a character unto themselvesand beautifully spare in its string-laden score by composer Gustavo Santaolalla, "Brokeback Mountain" is a late-in-the-year cinematic triumph of incendiary depth and poeticism. As the film moves toward its bittersweet conclusion, the viewer is left blindsided by the sheer impact of their fated relationship, consequently for what it has come to mean, where it has led, and what it can never be. And the final few scenes, taking their time to play themselves out in unexpected and uncompromisingly honest ways, are just about perfect. Bittersweet and achingly sublime without being maudlin or melodramatic, "Brokeback Mountain" is devastating in its depiction of how life doesn't, and sometimes can't, always turn out the way you would like it to.