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Brokeback Mountain

A Film To Stop Clocks
Brokeback Preserves Hollywood’s Gay Punishment
By Cole Smithey


Expanded into a screenplay by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, from Annie Proulx’s 52-page short story, "Brokeback Mountain" falls short of defining a lasting and meaningful homosexual love between two cowboys. With the lamentable names of Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) the story begins in 1963 against Wyoming's big sky where ranch hand Ennis and rodeo rider Jack share a remote job of tending sheep on a high mountain called "Brokeback." The men continue their furtive relationship across years even after each one weds and has children. Director Ang Lee ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") creates a compelling atmospheric film in spite of the story's obedient propagation of Hollywood's cliché myth that gay people must eventually be punished with lethal violence.

"Brokeback Mountain" is set up to be the first mainstream American movie about an enduring homosexual relationship. It’s being touted as a ‘beautifully observed drama,’ but fails distinctly when compared to a movie like "Transamerica" which stands as a moving and hopeful portrait of an alternative lifestyle experience.

Rob Epstein’s and Jeffrey Friedman’s essential 1995 documentary "The Celluloid Closet" examines the influence of the Catholic Church on America’s early ratings board, the Hays Code. "Open-mouth kissing, lustful embraces, sex perversion, seduction, rape, abortion, prostitution and white slavery, nudity and obscenity" were the off-limit hot buttons that the board attempted to banish even as creative screenwriters and filmmakers devised clever ways of pushing the envelope. Although not directly broached in the list, ‘homosexuality’ fell under the loose category of "sex perversion." Screenwriters could only tame this wild narrative beast by punishing gay characters with suicide or murder at the hands of insecure citizens who couldn’t stand to see their own humanity reflected back at them.

Annie Proulx’s laconic short story reads like a Haiku poem more concerned with form and style than with the way its characters connect. For their part, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana have merely pulled the narrative bones of the skeletal piece farther apart, rather than filling in the crux of Ennis’ and Jack’s potentially complex relationship. The result is a movie that feels patronizing and ingratiating for its effort of simultaneously rarefying and demonizing homosexual love.

At the film’s start Jake and Ennis wait for what seems an eternity to meet Joe Aguirre, a rancher (well played by Randy Quaid) who will hire them to tend sheep on Brokeback Mountain for the summer. Gyllenhaal’s Jake is a swaggering vision of testosterone-fuelled machismo as he leans up against his old pick-up truck. Ennis, on the other hand, is like a timid dog that was kicked as a puppy and who now keeps mournfully quiet. Ennis keeps his shoulders forward and looks down at the ground more than he looks up.


Once the newfound friends take their places on Brokeback mountain Ang Lee and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto ("Amores Perros") linger too long on scenes with the sheep and of the men handling them for the narrative element not to become somewhat comical. It doesn’t take much nudging to ponder the comic possibilities of a story that starts out with ‘two men alone on a mountain with a bunch of sheep.’

Jack talks a blue streak about his family past and about riding rodeo while the whiskey gradually enables Ennis to disclose the death of his parents in a car accident that left him with $24 in a coffee can. It’s through this backstory shorthand that a window of perceived communal opportunity opens up when Ennis shivers and coughs in his bedroll while Jack stays warm inside a tent. Jack orders Ennis into the tent and shortly lures him into more intimate regions. Ang Lee allows the scene to breathe with an intensity that sets a watermark in the viewer’s mind about the level of erotic communication between Ennis and Jack. Lee then cuts from the visceral love scene to a shot of a slaughtered sheep that paid with its life for the moments of pleasure that the men shared.

From this moment on, the film distances itself from the clarity of the men’s relationship. We witness Ennis and Jack cavorting in the outdoor sun via Joe Aguirre’s subjective binoculars that condemns the men as criminals caught in the act. When the men reunite years later, Ennis’ wife Alma (Michelle Williams) observes the men passionately kissing outside of her apartment. Here, the men’s passion is bared as an act of adultery that cannot even be confronted because it is so taboo. Years are compressed as the men get together several times a year to go on "fishing trips" that the audience is not invited on.


The filmmakers apply the final touch of Hollywood damnation when Ang Lee inserts the vicious murder of one of the men as an imagined event. The scene is a throwback to the 1959 film "Suddenly, Last Summer" where Elizabeth Taylor’s character is haunted by such an assassination of her gay cousin. Annie Proulx’s "Brokeback Mountain" is a patchy throwaway story that doesn’t deserve to occupy the vacuum it fills in mainstream American cinema. Modern audiences deserve something better.

Rated R, 134 mins. (B-)  (Three Stars)

December 29, 2005 | Permalink