|A year or so ago, the phrase "gay cowboy movie" probably sounded like it might be a wacky, quirky buddy film to most people. To us, it sounded like manna from heaven. We love ourselves a good all-male love story, as the Downloads folder on our hard drive can attest. If anything, we were a little nervous about seeing Brokeback Mountain because we weren't sure we could stop ourselves from cheering, "Save a horse, ride a cowboy!" when the two pretty boys started making out.
Then we got an overview of the short story the film is based on, which promptly dashed our hopes for either a wink-and-a-nod wild-west comedy or chaps-intensive dude-on-dude action. No, Brokeback Mountain is one of Those Movies, that kind of love story where love makes people miserable rather than happy---a kind of love story that's all too common for gay protagonists.
What makes Brokeback Mountain" almost unbearable is that it's such a well-done romantic tragedy: the script is elegant and spare, the way guys who work with livestock most likely talk. The direction is almost invisible, which to us is the mark of good direction. The cinematography is breathtaking; each shot is gorgeously composed. And most of the acting, particularly that of the two leads, is incredible. Dammit, if you're going to break our heart, at least do it in a half-assed fashion; it hurts so much more when it's done well.
The story begins when two ranch hands sign on for sheep-watching duty on the slopes of a national park. Ennis Del Mar slouches against the foreman's trailer while waiting to apply for the job, while Jack Twist lurches up in a beat-to-crap truck and poses arrogantly by its fender. Jack is a wannabe rodeo star, while Ennis has a fiancÚ waiting for the summer's end. The men strike up a friendship, which leads to heartfelt chats around the fire and flirtatious teasing, which leads to---damn, that is most definitely two guys having sex---which leads to actual love.
The time Ennis and Jack spend on the mountain is cut short, and the two drift apart, only to spend the next couple of decades trying to recapture their idyllic days together. Both of them get married, so the misery is spread around. Ennis's wife Alma produces two daughters, who seem to delight their distant father. Jack meets his wife Lurene when she trick-rides at the rodeo and subsequently Jack-rides in her dad's car. But the two guys manage to get together every so often, camp out on Brokeback Mountain, and get a torturously brief taste of the life they could have had together, in a slightly different world. Watching these men try to live without each other is like watching a creature who needs to breathe oxygen try to breathe nitrogen.
Each lead actor does an amazing job with these two different characters. As Ennis, Heath Ledger conveys the closed-lip terror of a man so petrified of expressing himself that he can barely get his few words out. Jake Gyllenhaal has a much trickier role, as Jack has to change the most in the course of the film. While Ennis ossifies further with time, Jack curdles, going from a brash but sweet kid to a sour man who takes chances out of desperation. Not only are their performances fantastic, the chemistry---both sexual and romantic---between the two actors is utterly believable (and, from our standpoint, pretty damn hot).
Not surprisingly, Ledger also has great sexual chemistry with Michelle Williams, who plays Ennis' wife Alma; Ledger and Williams had a daughter a couple months ago. Alma is the most emotionally expressive character in the movie, but of course all the emotions she's allowed to experience are painful ones. Williams does a great job, almost making us wish we had watched an episode of Dawson's Creek---almost---to see if there was any indication of her talent on the show. Anne Hathaway as Lurene suffers greatly by comparison. In fairness, Lurene isn't as fleshed-out as the other main characters; still, Hathaway's hair rather than her performance shows how brittle Lurene becomes (and based on that final blond blow-dried look, that is brittle indeed).
Already, the film has won many awards, including Best Drama at the Golden Globes earlier this month. We figure that it will be a contender for about half a dozen Oscars, and we wouldn't be surprised at all to see it win a few, and for good reason. We can honestly say that Brokeback Mountain is one of the best movies we've seen all year. And, to our great surprise, it's not just because of the pretty boys making out. Although that never, ever hurts.