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Brokeback Mountain – breaking the back of prejudice

a love that dares....

a love that dares....

Brokeback Mountain – Director Ang Lee

(January 2006)

The most American film of the year should be an Oscar first. A shared best actor award for Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger It is hard to see how the leading role, supporting role distinction can be sustained in this absorbing, multi-layered film at the emotional heart of which is the complex, lifelong relationship between Ennis (Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal).

A bad reason for Oscar recognition would be talk of the ‘bravery’ of a gay story set in rural, redneck America. This is no gay cowboy movie. It is rooted not so much in the cowboy movie genre as in that deep part of America’s frontier, pioneering soul that provided the power to drive the cowboy genre in the first place. It is as an unsentimental lament for a lost America. An America as unforgiving and narrow but real, as the vast, wild country that spawned it. Opening in 1963 two dirt poor young drifters meet while seeking work driving sheep up to graze on desolate Brokeback mountain, there to supervise night and day the summer grazing and fight off predators. Both young men share fractured family backgrounds and alienation from their fathers. By this time the old West is long gone, its cowboy skills and arts cling on in rodeos and cheap labour for any remaining ranchwork going. One senses the rootlessness of truck stops, trailer parks and neon-lit motels which have replaced the stable rural, ranching communities of the not so distant past.

Hired by redneck, hard-ass boss Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid), these two rootless young men head up to the breathtaking beauty of Brokeback mountain to live for a month tending sheep and withstanding the cold and dangers of the wild. Lee’s elegiac direction and Rodrigo Prieto’s assured cinematography create a powerful sense of place and belonging for Jack and Ennis. Perhaps for the first time for both. In tone Brokeback has distinct echoes of the Last Picture Show (1971) but with a rural rather than urban setting. This may be more than coincidence as the Brokeback screenplay based on an E Annie Proulx’ (Shipping News) short story, was written by Larry McMurtry who wrote novel and screenplay for the Last Picture Show.

With so much writing depth behind the movie, Lee has been extraordinarily disciplined with dialogue to remain authentic to his setting and his characters. Both have a kind of inarticulate sense of the raw emotion developing between them but this is not a place where men discuss, debate, articulate their emotions in order to understand them better. Post Korean war America is in transition between old verities and new opportunities. The balance of American economic power has become irreversibly urban and industrial and under-educated Jack and Ennis, possessed only of rural skills, are scratching a living where and when they can.

Dispossessed of their roots of place and work, denied the emotional support of stable family life, the context for their burgeoning sense of friendship and intimacy is powerfully established. For this Ang Lee’s rather detached, almost cold directorial style works perfectly. He allows this ambiguous and guilty relationship to emerge before our eyes – he shows us, he doesn’t try to tell us or explain it to us. Jack and Ennis are like two young colts: fighting, wrestling, enjoying the sheer exuberant physicality of their intimate natural world. They share the secret of a forbidden relationship in a remote private place and become overwhelmed by it. Together they find a place to be, physically and emotionally. Deep atavistic social hostility towards ‘queers’ no doubt reinforced by bible-belt fundamentalism, means this love dare not speak its name on pain of brutal murder not mere disapproval. Ennis was taken at the age of 9 by his father, to see the body of an elderly castrated man murdered for the mere fact of his sexuality. And as the more sexually knowing of the pair, Jack knows only too well the risks they are taking. When Aguirre calls unexpectedly, he sees their coltish physicality and leaves in disgust.

Literally back to earth from Brokeback mountain, they take their separate ways, Jack back to rodeoing in Texas and Ennis to any ranching jobs he can get in Wyoming. They each drift into marriage and fatherhood in what must have been a common hiding place for secret homosexual feelings at the time. But the uniqueness and power of their sense of personal identity and fulfilment on Brokeback mountain awaits only the trigger of contact to release it. Meeting up after some years Jack and Ennis, overwhelmed by their physical feelings for each other are observed by Ennis’ wife Alma (Michelle Williams – ‘Jen’ from Dawson’s Creek). Her devastation at this bombshell is reinforced by Jack and Ennis taking fictitious fishing trips to be alone together in the years that follow.

Jack is always the risk-taker of the pair, meeting his sexual needs by occasional trips to Mexico. Ennis, less articulate and less knowing, just seems bemused and uncomprehending of the power of the feelings Jack awakes in him. When he and Alma divorce he stays in touch and supports his two daughters whereas Jack toys with letting his father-in-law pay him to disappear from his daughter and grandson’s life. Without giving anything away we have a sense of foreboding for these two men. One feels that Brokeback mountain was the only place they could be – openly themselves only with each other, and even then with a lethal need for secrecy. It will be fascinating to see how this plays in those parts of America where it is set. The idea of homosexuality being an abomination before God still has powerful currency within bible belt communities. Aguirre’s contemptuous refusal to re-employ Jack is not so far away from many contemporary attitudes in rural America.

This is a moving, thought-provoking, multi-layered film. Powerfully cinematic it opens up serious and challenging issues by showing them through image and dramatic context, not telling us through dialogue or discussion. It took time for me to read Gyllenhaal and Ledger’s performances. Their gauche inarticulate physical awkwardness took a little while to accept as absolutely right. However, of all the Oscars I suspect it will win, the one it most deserves is that for sound. This is not something I always notice, but the acute sense of being drawn into Jack and Ennis’s secret world is made intensely real and immediate by the superb soundscape created by Foley artist Marko A Costanzo. For this reason, see it on a screen with good quality sound or you will miss much.

Forget the hype and the publicity. This is a far more subtle film than they would suggest. Leave preconceptions behind and let it just engage you. You will not be disappointed. Only Spielberg’s Munich or Malik’s New World look likely to upset Brokeback’s Oscar apple cart. Not having seen these it’s a sucker bet, but my money’s on Brokeback.

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