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Brokeback Mountain

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Director: Ang Lee
Reviewed by Alice de Noix

Brokeback Mountain has been hailed as a cinematic landmark for its chronicling of a romance between two men in an era when gay rights and social awareness were in their infancy. But though this mainstream film does well in presenting the fear and secrecy around gay relations in the early 1960s, it's depiction of same-sex love fails to gratify. Excellent performances and breathtaking vistas of the Canadian Rockies cannot conceal the film's main weakness – the unsatisfying relationship between Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal). Director Ang Lee does a remarkable job developing their individual characters, but there is little here to suggest that the two protagonists are in it for anything deeper than lust in a culture that is hostile to their nature.

At the outset of the film, Lee quickly establishes a sexual link between Ennis and Jack – two hunky cowboys down on their luck, both kicking the dust in front of an employment office in Somewhere, Wyoming. A few scenes later, they are romping together like teenage lovers and tasting the forbidden fruit of their attraction beneath a creamy Rocky Mountain moon. Unfortunately, during the course of the movie, their bond never seems to grow much beyond their need for companionship and sexual fulfillment. Aside from a few expressions of real attachment – Jack, the more liberated of the couple, asks Ennis to settle down with him, and even-keeled Ennis goes bronco trying to reconcile his feelings for Jack with his own masculinity – there's not much relationship meat here. Their semi-annual trysts in the backcountry, we are led to assume, is where their love matures, but Lee treats these meetings as private, and the audience is left on its own to imagine what cements the men together through the decades their romance endures.

In Brokeback Mountain, the love affair between two macho dudes may break new cinematic ground, but it's their spousal relationships that save the movie from falling into a gorge. Despite their mutual attraction for each other, Ennis and Jack follow the path of least resistance – they marry, have children and try to build normal lives. Alma Del Mar, played by Michelle Williams of Dawson Creek fame, is moving as Ennis's work-weary wife who discovers that her husband's trips to the lake with Jack have nothing to do with hooking a trout. Her transition from confused partner to woman scorned, as well as Anne Hathaway's portrayal of Jack's see-nothing-hear-nothing wife, Lureen, offers a realistic glimpse into the turmoil of women caught in the middle.

Like Romeo and Juliet, Brokeback Mountain is a tale of love's failure to conquer prejudice. It highlights the emotional mayhem that can ensue when brave people buck convention. Shakespeare, however, used every theatric device available to produce an unquestionable love story that has lasted for centuries. Ang Lee's treatment of same-sex relationships in the 1960s may accurately depict the isolation of the time, but by not inviting us to share more of Ennis and Jack's precious moments, the truth about what kept these cowpokes enamored for so long will forever remain buried.