Starring: Heath Ledger; Jake Gyllenhaal; Randy Quaid; Anne Hathaway; Michelle Williams
Director: Ang Lee
Writing Credits: Ang Lee, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana adapted from a short story by E. Annie Proulx
Distributor: Focus Features
Rated: Rated R for sexuality, nudity, language and some violence.
Run Time: 134 minutes

It begins so simply.

A plucked guitar string. A mountain range. Forests. Clouds dotting an enormous sky, blue as the ocean. Birds. Wind. And then: a wordless exchange of glances between two cowhands.

Everything is now in place for the trip to BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, Ang Lee's sublime adaptation of the short story by E. Annie Proulx. Unlike any film in recent memory, this tragic, romantic elegy is an ingenious feat: magisterial in its vision, bare-bones in its telling, contrasting a singular vision of gay life in America set against the complexity of falling in love.

It would damage your experience of the film to go into too much plot detail; if you are interested enough to read this review, then you are probably already aware that it follows two cowboys in 1963, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), as they furtively begin a secret love affair that spans over twenty years. Initiatied in a flurry of passion on the titular mountain, the affair is hidden from wives, parents, employers and even (on occasion) from each other. The romance is meticulously plotted and heartbreakingly rendered; their love is undeniable, but this is Wyoming, smack in the middle of Cowboy Country...and therein lies the rub, to paraphrase Shakespeare.

From its first moments, it becomes clear that what is spoken aloud in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is far less important than what goes unsaid. It is a meditative film, unhurried in its storytelling, confident enough in its own abilities to indulge in gorgeous scenery and the occasional joke. These elements, however, occlude the true marvel director Lee has fashioned; in one fell swoop, he has deftly reconfigured the iconography of the cowboy and replaced it with a far more intriguing value. The Marlboro Man has reawakened as an archetype fully realized, brimming with ambivalence and complexity. The cowboys of the Neo-Western, first seen in works like Unforgiven, Dead Man, and Lonesome Dove, have welcomed a stunning new addition to the field.

While many will talk about the universality of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, let me be the first to say: it simply isn't true. Oh, I'm sure heterosexuals will have a great time watching the film, but this isn't their story, and to water it down with claims of universality is to do it a great disservice. This particular tale could not have happened to anyone but two is a hard, spare story, albeit one told with eloquence. (Their lovemaking is often undistinguishable from boys' roughousing, and occasionally ends in fistfights.) Ennis and Jack lack the vocabulary and the life experience to process their desires; brutality and roughness sit comfortably in their psyches alongside tenderness and gentility. Unlike any other film you can think of, BROKEBACK offers up a wholly masculine vision of homosexuality; these are men thousands of miles from any major urban center, who do not recognize themselves in the stereotype...who have never heard of Judy Garland, and don't want to.

Facing the brutal world outside their mountain haven, Ennis takes it the hardest. In a magnificent performance, Ledger perfectly captures the straight-talking ranch hand whose bottled-up emotions slowly rot him from the inside. With never a spare word wasted, Ledger's sad eyes convey the dismal pain of his marriage to Alma (Michelle Williams) and his futile flirtation with a waitress (Linda Cardellini). Gyllenhaal, on the other hand, endows Jack with a clumsy charm, emboldened by a heart so full of emotion that it might explode. The fine supporting cast only features one misstep, that of Anne Hathaway, who plays Jack's rich wife Lureen with an out-of-place cartoonishness.

BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN exudes atmosphere; it could well be considered to be the third lead in the film. That atmosphere is captured by two extraordinary designers: cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Frida, 21 Grams), whose Ansel Adams-influenced backgrounds are the best travel brochure Wyoming ever had, and composer Gustavo Santaolalla (The Motorcycle Diaries), whose plaintive guitar settings are the musical equivalent of hearing a heart break.

But it is Lee, whose calm and steady hand invisibly guides BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN from start to finish, who is most responsible for the film's success. The inability to love, whether due to homophobia, violence, distance, or merely missed opportunity, is a crime of epic proportions, a tragedian's pallette. In Lee's poignant Western landscape, our collective refusal to free love from the chains of moral superiority has broken the back of America. We cannot continue down that path, no matter the costs.

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