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Brokeback Mountain (15)

Queer eye for the country guy

Jonathan Romney
Sunday 08 January 2006 01:00 GMT

A rugged landscape, two rugged men - stetsons, corduroy and denim - both gazing terse and tight-jawed at the Wyoming mountainscape. One chews his cigarette, frowning, then mutters, "Y'know I ain't queer." "Me neither," grunts the other. And this after a night of shared bullish passion in a pup tent. This is Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, but it could have been called Secret Sex Lives of the Marlboro Men.

Brokeback Mountain has been acclaimed as that long-awaited chimera, a fully-fledged gay western. Well, it is and it isn't. Based on a short story by Annie Proulx, it's about two young sheep-herding hands whose lives come to be dominated by a mutual passion that endures even while they're living in separate states. Both uneasily married, they go on for years pining for those lost windblown days of love and adventure.

Literary and filmic conventions being what they are, you don't read Proulx's story and think of it as a western; you don't compare it to the works of Zane Grey. It's just a realist narrative about men who ride horses and work with livestock. Inevitably, however, a film containing wide-brimmed hats and open country - even if it is set in the Sixties and Seventies - will be categorised, however loosely, as a western and read against the tradition of John Ford et al. In this light, Brokeback Mountain is destined to be seen as a commentary on the genre's hidden sexual agenda - a reminder that the western, with its tales of bold men bonding in bleak places, was always implicitly homoerotic, and that with films such as Red River, Johnny Guitar and Butch Cassidy, "implicit" isn't the word at all.

But Brokeback Mountain is not an academic exercise in genre queering. It's simply a story about men in love and men at work. It's also about how their feelings affect the women in their lives. Ang Lee, who made Eat Drink Man Woman and Sense and Sensibility, has always been one of the mainstream's most acute directors when it comes to complex women's roles. The film might be a dazzling showcase for Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger - the latter slightly has the edge with his strangulated basso reticence - but it's something of an ensemble piece too.

The film begins with a wonderful piece of laconic scene-setting. Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) and Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal) silently wait outside a trailer to sign on for a job: they cautiously glance at each other, stare at the ground, kick a little dirt. You start to wonder about certain signs: when Jack leans back on his station wagon, is he posing seductively, sizing Ennis up to see if he has his interest? Or would we even notice that intimation if pre-publicity hadn't told us what to expect? What's fascinating, right up to the first physical encounter, is the subliminal way that sexual hints emerge from beneath those closely guarded shells of machismo.

The signs may be evident if you're already habitually inclined to "out" a scene between two handsome men by a campfire, but Lee brilliantly points up the men's reluctance to give themselves away. In an extraordinary shot, Jack hangs his head while Ennis washes naked in the background in a soft-focus blur: we sense that Jack is aware of him, but he in no way registers Ennis's presence, and that speaks more eloquently than any gaze of unbridled desire.

After their idyll, they go their own ways: Ennis gets together with the sweet, moon-faced Alma (a muted, superbly affecting Michelle Williams) while Jack marries a Texan princess (Anne Hathaway) and acquires a domineering pig of a father-in-law. Scripted by novelist-screenwriter Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, the film is scrupulously attentive to the way that, in failing to pursue their own happiness, the men sour the lives of those around them. One heartrending scene has Ennis scowling in a diner, refusing to communicate with Cassie (Linda Cardellini), a woman he's ditched in a scene we never see. The moment plays on the convention of the strong silent man and the good woman who could have redeemed him - but it derives its peculiar power from the simple fact that we know something about Ennis that Cassie doesn't.

Not that Jack and Ennis know that much about each other: on one of their snatched weekends together, they exchange confidences about women, but Ennis bitterly makes it clear that he doesn't want to know about Jack's other men. In fact, we've glimpsed Jack's encounters, failed or furtive. Homosexuality is even more a secret in this Sixties/Seventies South than in the Fifties suburbia of Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven; and a flashback shows why men like Ennis are afraid to live the lives they ache for.

Brokeback Mountain is extremely moving and elegantly crafted, but not quite the artistic breakthrough you might think, given its Golden Lion in Venice last year. In form and imagery, it's of a very classic stamp, with its vast mountain skies beautifully shot by Rodrigo Prieto to contrast with the bleached drabness of life at ground level. But where a queerer experimentalist such as Haynes might have made this a strictly art-house success, Lee's traditional, even middle-brow approach has resulted in an upmarket commercial hit: a intelligent tear-jerker that, for a change, concerns two tough men. "Brokeback got us good," says Jack, and it'll get you good too.

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