Monday, September 13, 2010

Brokeback Mountain [Ang Lee]

Brokeback Mountain's script is not its strongest feature. It would be a little hard for me to find credible involvement in a love story between two cowboys that commences with a scenario that goes “It's freezin' mightily out there, so I'll poke yore ass for a l'il while and then you kin poke mine, alrighty pardner?” But trust Ang Lee to step over that bit of disbelief there and in his deliberate understated manner bring home a real empathy towards its characters.

Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gylenhaal) are the two cowboys in 60's America who, doing a grazing assignment for a man named Aguirre (hmm, any reference to Werner Herzog's film?) find in each other a more interesting alternative to sheep. They both initially agree it's a one-off thing and they're not 'queer'. But life doesn't turn out that way, and despite their later attachments, they time and again return to each other and Brokeback Mountain to revisit their companionship. Calling in at various (often arbitrary, more script weakness) points of time in their lives, the film examines the impact of their secret relationship on their selves and the people around them.

So yes there's a gay love story in the center but the film needn't be viewed solely on that ground (which is not to say that such excuses are required to appreciate it). Ang Lee's take on the material often suggests that he himself doesn't. Ennis is a protective husband and parent, and an orthodox Christian that does not believe in birth control, even finding it hurtful that his wife will not bear more of his children (he already has three). Jack's marriage comes in the wake of a hasty sexually fueled affair with the daughter of a rich domineering Texan. Their repeated trysts can be seen as much as a desire to return to a past where they were less shackled by the ties of society. This seems more apparent in Jack's case since he is trapped in a marriage with an increasingly shrewish wife and a father-in-law that openly mocks him (But Jack is also the more openly homosexual of the two, seeking out affairs with other men). Even other characters like Ennis' wife are not fixated on the gay aspect of the affair – she is more furious at Ennis for having lied about his 'fishing' trips than at having seen him snogging with his cowboy buddy.

Thus the forbidden relationship carries on. Jack repeatedly implores Ennis to come away with him and start anew, but the latter is held by the harsh conventions of society (as a child he is taken by his father to see a homosexual tortured to death) and perhaps his own misgivings, despite the sense of freedom he enjoys in Jack's company. There's an effective flashback bit near the 110min mark of the film which would have served as a wonderful coda had they chosen to stop the film there. But it goes on for a little longer and a more conventional (if also nicely done) ending.

It's obvious that such a film's effectiveness rests very heavily on its lead performances, and here Heath Ledger comes across as a revelation. His portrayal of the brooding conflicted Ennis Del Mar is one of the best performances I've seen in a recent while, and towers mightily over that overrated and mostly boring trick he turned in the Batman film. Jake Gylenhaal is less effective, although to be fair his character is also less nuanced. Ang Lee shows some element of Terence Malick, using the landscape and its spaces to resonate the emotional graphs of the characters; while vast unspoilt wildernesses (DOP Rodrigo Prieto) decorate the backdrops where Ennis and Jack gambol in secret, the scenes of their conventional lives are almost always depicted in unadorned, matter-of-fact fashion.

So yes, Brokeback Mountain is a pretty damn good film about a forbidden affair and you don't need to be a flaming gay rights activist to see that.

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