Guy Noon

Heath Ledger's performance fuels a classic — and gay — western tale.

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click to enlarge STRONG AND SILENT: Heath Ledger's subtle, physical performance in Brokeback Mountain is as much a force of nature as the film's Wyoming landscapes. - Focus Features/kimberly French
Focus Features/kimberly French
STRONG AND SILENT: Heath Ledger's subtle, physical performance in Brokeback Mountain is as much a force of nature as the film's Wyoming landscapes.

There are moments in Brokeback Mountain loaded with such a wealth of wide open spaces and purple mountains' majesty that everything iconic and awe-inspiring about America seems to be up there on the screen. You feel like you've walked into an Ansel Adams photograph or, more to the point, a classic John Ford western. It's a feeling further amplified when two cowboys wander into the frame, one wearing a white hat, the other sporting a black hat tipped low over his eyes.

The color of those hats doesn't signify much, though, outside of a possible wink at the sorts of codes usually present in movies about people who wear hats like these (codes that Brokeback gently breaks apart and reassembles). Far from separating good guys from bad guys, Brokeback's black and white Stetsons hint at what might lie beneath those manly struggles that traditionally play out between some of the cinema's most cherished macho archetypes.

And in Brokeback Mountain's version, that mano-a-mano tussle is considerably more intimate and, in some ways, more anguished than anything John Wayne and Montgomery Clift ever got into.

As nearly every man, woman and child in North America has probably heard by now, Ang Lee's new movie is the epic tale of two rough-and-tumble cowboys who discover, to their great amazement, that they only have eyes for each other. The film has become known in some circles (circles that include many people who should know better) simply as "the gay cowboy movie," but that seems like an awfully undignified and demeaning way to refer to as classic a love story as we've seen on screen in a long, long time.

And besides, why single out Brokeback as the "gay cowboy movie"? After all, if you believe even a fraction of all those film historians who've made their reputations pointing out the homoerotic subtext lurking in classic westerns, most of them fit that bill.

If subtext is what you're after, though, there's subtext exploding all over the place in Lee's controversial film. At its root, however, Brokeback Mountain is profound in its simplicity, a deliriously romantic and deeply elegiac tale of a love that dares not speak its name.

Lee tells the story of Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger), two hired hands who meet in the summer of 1963 while herding sheep out in the wilds of Wyoming. The nights are cold and the only way to keep warm is to share a tent, but it's still a shock to Ennis and Jack when the two young men find themselves huddling for something besides warmth. Before either of them know what's happening, they're unable to keep their hands off each other.

The passion that consumes these good old cowboys is so unexpected, so completely alien to their backgrounds and to their core conceptions of themselves, that they don't even have the words to express it. "This is a one shot thing we got going on here," the men tell themselves in a feeble effort to brush aside what's happening and get on with their "real" lives, but you can already see the movie's storm clouds gathering, both figuratively and literally. It's that disconnect between desire and expectations, between love and life, that becomes the tragedy and the glory of Jack and Ennis' story.

Brokeback Mountain follows their lives through loveless marriages, failed attempts to forget one another and covert reunions where repressed passions are quickly reignited. Lee's storytelling is not perfect — the movie occasionally zips ahead in time so abruptly that it takes us a second to figure out how many kids Ennis currently has or to realize that Jack is now married to that girl he'd just met in the previous scene — and the film's melodramatic flourishes sometimes seem to be skirting the edges of out-and-out camp.

Still, Lee's movie possesses an emotional weight and an elemental vitality that's often thrilling, as well as a lead performance that's among the most memorable ever captured on film. Heath Ledger's mush-mouthed Ennis (he might have taken elocution lessons from Forrest Gump) is a classic western hero: a strong, silent type who barely says anything but manages to communicate worlds of pain and longing with a minimum of dialogue or actorly fussiness. Ledger's sublimely understated, heartbreakingly physical performance is as much a force of nature as the Wyoming landscapes that dominate the film — calm and tender one moment, exploding in pent-up fury the next.

The portrait painted here alternates elegant, subtle brushwork with broad, all-American strokes, giving us visually ravishing images of a mythic nation and then deconstructing those very same images into curious new shapes. There are shots of beefcake cowboys cavorting in nature, buck-naked but for their hats, so fleeting and lovely that you don't even notice the subversive, Tom of Finland-esque twist until you stop to think about it. Likewise for the movie's tendency to occasionally feel like a vintage Douglas Sirk melodrama-cum-social-critique, gently mutated into a realm where men and women have so little interest in one another that they can't even be bothered with the so-called war of the sexes.

But that's getting back into subtext again, and the best parts of Brokeback Mountain are right there on the surface to be seen. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it's got to be said that in many ways this is an important film, one right in synch with the zeitgeist, and one that anticipates, captures and crystallizes a transitional moment in our culture and in history. The film takes a journey through the past to tell the story of Jack and Ennis, but it clearly points the way to the future as well.

The Brokeback backlash that's already begun will tell you that the movie's no big deal, that Tom Hanks was mainstreaming gay realities with Philadelphia a dozen years ago. There's a small bit of truth to that, but Philadelphia (besides being basically just another damn courtroom drama) was mostly notable for allowing us to watch a gay man live a non-threateningly sexless life and die an extravagantly operatic death.

First and foremost a world-class love story, Brokeback gives us the whole kit and kaboodle and then some, showing us that a kiss is still a kiss, and sometimes more.

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