Combustible Celluloid
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With: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway, Randy Quaid, Linda Cardellini, Anna Faris, Scott Michael Campbell, Kate Mara, Cheyenne Hill, Brooklyn Proulx, Tom Carey
Written by: Larry McMurtry, Diana Ossana, based on a story by E. Annie Proulx
Directed by: Ang Lee
MPAA Rating: R for sexuality, nudity, language and some violence
Running Time: 134
Date: 09/02/2005

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Molehills and 'Mountain'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Virtually everything that has been written about Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain calls it a groundbreaking piece of work, mostly because it's the first film to marry the Western with a gay romance, but also because it comes at a time of great controversy for gay couples.

Unfortunately, these honorable intentions are not enough to make Brokeback Mountain a great movie, or even a good one. Though it may be a radical idea to combine two such opposing genres, the actual result ought to have some merit, and the movie is too tame and too clumsy to be worth much outside its "groundbreaking" status.

Adapted from a short story by E. Annie Proulx (whose The Shipping News also made for a hugely disappointing movie), Lee's film stretches the story over the course of decades to beyond its breaking point.

Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal star as Ennis and Jack, a couple of cowhands hired to watch over a flock of sheep on a remote mountain. While there, they succumb to their mutual attraction and carry on a secret romance over the rest of their lives, meeting every year for "fishing" trips.

Lee botches the all-important setup with his ham-fisted direction. Rather than using the mountainside itself as a physical, visual playground for the men's lust, Lee simply shoots a series of pretty postcards.

Imagine what Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes or the late Nicholas Ray might have done with this material. Or picture something desolate and emotionally desperate like Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show (1971), an adaptation of a novel by Larry McMurtry, who collaborated on the Brokeback Mountain screenplay. Lee instead aims for something mythic, along the lines of Titanic, and fails to get at the basic, ground level human element.

Since Lee has neglected to build erotic tension, the big sex scene lands flat. The boys simply jump on one another while spending a chilly night together in a beat-up tent. It's a rough, angry pounding, and it's more terrifying than it is romantic or erotic, as if Lee himself were afraid of the scene.

Indeed, the implied homoerotic husband-and-wife relationship between Pierce Brosnan and Greg Kinnear in the upcoming The Matador is far more playful and touching.

When the mountain sequence ends, we're plunged into skipping-stone mode, with only hairstyles and graying beards to let us know how much time has passed. As with so many other films with long timelines, Brokeback Mountain manages only to capture highlights without details. When Ennis (Ledger) keeps failing to connect with his growing daughter, it means very little because we have no idea who she is.

Fortunately, the second half of the film benefits from a clever performance by Michelle Williams as Ennis' suffering wife. Not surprisingly, it's an underwritten role. All she does is wait and fret, but Williams makes a silk purse from it with her internalized pain and her expressive eyes; it's the best "waiting wife" performance since Kathleen Quinlan's in Apollo 13 (1995).

And just for fun, the delightful Anne Hathaway (The Princess Diaries, Ella Enchanted) turns up as the poor young woman who meets Jack at a rodeo and marries him. She's wasted in a silly role, of course, but it's worth it to see her in not only a cute cowgirl outfit, but also in her birthday suit.

Ledger does a fine job with his understated, unexpressive performance, just like a real cowboy, even though his mumbled line readings often render the dialogue inaudible. But Gyllenhaal strikes a sour note as the complaining Jack, always wondering why the two men can't spend more time together, seemingly unaware of the reality that their relationship -- in 1960s and 1970s Middle America -- could easily result in their deaths.

The film tentatively brings up this emotional thread with a gruesome flashback, but neglects to get below the surface. Like a silly romantic comedy, it needs something simple to keep the men fighting -- to keep them apart -- so why dig any deeper?

The film's supporters have compared it to a tragic, unrequited romance like Titanic, but the dynamic here, with Jack continually pushing and Ennis continually pulling away, does not strike the same note, not by a long shot.

In Titanic, the lovers occupied a cozy center spot within a large, historical disaster, and director James Cameron could further the story by juggling back and forth between the two. In Brokeback, Lee is plunged into a single storyline with no interesting background; he responds by hammering the same notes over and over.

Of course, these criticisms fly in the face of popular opinion; Brokeback Mountain is a booby-trapped film, designed to appear like an Oscar winner, and to be viewed without question. It's infuriating that three other, much braver gay-themed films from earlier this year, Tropical Malady, Mysterious Skin and Capote, won't merit a fraction of the attention lavished upon Lee's timid effort. And gay audiences who have patiently waited for their epic romantic masterpiece will have to wait still longer.

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