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REVIEW: BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN

 

 

By Antoine du Rocher

NEW YORK, 4 March 2006—In Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol , the Spirt of Christmas Present presents Ebeneezer Scrooge with two naked street urchins, crouched at his feet, symbolizing Ignorance and Want—and particularly warns Scrooge to beware of Ignorance.
 
Taiwanese director Ang Lee gives a similar warning in his latest film, Brokeback Mountain. Based on Annie Proulx's haunting story about the forbidden and secretive love affair between a ranch hand and a rodeo cowboy and skillfully adapted by writers Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, Brokeback Mountain has been the source of controversy and uproar in the United States since it opened in theatres last December. 


Heath Leger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain
Photo courtesy of Focus Features 

Much of the American media and public fixated on the taboo idea of "gay cowboys," a conceit that flies in the face of cowboy as icon of American heterosexual masculinity, rugged independance and the conquest of the American West. Hollywood (and the tobacco industry) reinforced this myth, seducing millions of young Americans with inaccurate history and idealized images of Marlboro men.

In Brokeback Mountain all of these notions are, of course explicitly challenged, by the unflinching depiction of the decades-long romance between Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger), and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal). Working as sheepherders outside Signal, Wyoming, the two fall in love, then furtively pursue their relationship in a series of stolen moments across two decades.The homophobia of the world of Jack and Ennis is so extreme that they believe, rightly, that exposure of their relationship would likely mean instant death.  


Heath Leger and Michelle Williams in Brokeback Mountain
Photo courtesy of Focus Features 

The film has spawned a pop-culture phenomenon: innumerable parodies of varying quality, as amateurs mashup films as varied as The Lord of the Rings, Top Gun, and Back to the Future to extract (or create) trailers revealing the film's latent homoerotic subtexts. (Many are collected here: http://www.ifilm.com/viralvideo/collection/brokebackspoofs) Some of these show real cleverness, but most are a form of adolescent tittering, reflecting America's ongoing discomfort with the idea of homosexuality. 

Lee's subtext, however, is a scalding social commentary on ignorance, repression and prejudice in the late 20th century American west.  Unforgettable scenes, such as a flashback to a traumatic moment between Ennis and his father, and the visit of Ennis Del Mar to the backward and barely literate parents of Jack Twist, are devastating in their stark reality. (And for all that decades now separate us from the time of the story, the brutality and intolerance of that world are clearly still with us; 22-year-old Matthew Shepard was murdered in 1998 in Laramie, Wyoming, because of his sexual orientation.) 


Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway in Brokeback Mountain
Photo courtesy of Focus Features 

Lee's skill as a director is at the heart of the success of his project, but the entire cast turns in exceptional performances. Most notable is that of Heath Leger, whose Ennis Del Mar is one of the great surprises of the year. He seems to literally grapple with every emotion, almost pathologically unable to articulate or comprehend his existential condition or his feelings for the somewhat wiser and less tormented Jack.  Gyllenhaal and Michelle Williams, as Ennis' wife Alma, also earn their Oscar nominations. It would be unfortunate if Brokeback Mountain were to sweep the Oscars because of the hype around its topic, but the film's quality, on the whole, makes it a deserving contender.

Antoine du Rocher is managing editor of Culturekiosque.com.

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