Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Broken hearts on "Brokeback Mountain"


directed by Ang Lee
written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana
based on the short story by E. Annie Proulx
starring Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway, Randy Quaid, Linda Cardellini

Forget the hype. “Brokeback Mountain” is a good movie: nothing more and nothing less. Or at least that’s all it would be in a better world. In the world we have, of course, it’s poised to become the latest pawn in the so-called culture wars, despite recent efforts to finesse the controversy by marketing the movie as "just a love story." (For a very interesting discussion on that subject, go here.) Yet the truth remains that the film’s only real “agenda” is narrative; it carries no other except what the viewer brings to it.

For on some level, "Brokeback" *is* just a love story, with a twist. A Jack Twist, to be precise. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) Ennis del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) are two cowboys who first meet in the 1960s while herding sheep together one summer on Brokeback Mountain, Wyoming. Ennis, an orphan who comes from ranching stock, is taciturn and inexpressive; but the chattier Jack, a rodeo rider, gradually draws Ennis out of his shell—and, one frigid night, into his bed. The two fall headlong into an intensely physical yet oddly innocent affair, which they only half realize might be love. Of the two, Jack seems to realize it more clearly; Ennis, on the other hand, insists he isn’t queer, and reaffirms his intention of marrying his sweetheart, Alma (Michelle Williams), when the summer is over.

Marry her he does, and begets two daughters by her. Jack, too, goes his own way and eventually tumbles into a marriage of his own, to lovely Texas rodeo queen Lureen (played by Anne “Princess” Hathaway in a succession of increasingly unfortunate hairstyles). But then, one fateful day, Jack swings through Ennis’s town for a visit. It takes about two seconds for them to re-kindle their affair—with a crushed Alma watching from a window—and two decades to live through the consequences. While Jack cherishes hopes of their setting up a ranch together, Ennis rejects any such goal as an impossible pipe dream and limits their time together to “fishing trips” twice a year on Brokeback. Much misery follows, tearing Jack, Ennis, and their families to pieces, as the two men can neither be together nor give each other up.

What’s most remarkable about “Brokeback” is how *un*remarkable it is at bottom. I say this not in disparagement but a kind of quiet awe that such a thing could be possible. The film is a well-made, conventionally structured tale of forbidden romance, repressed yearnings, and eventual tragedy. (The guy who dubbed it “Remains of the Gay” wasn’t far off the mark.) But—and this is a big but—what sets it apart is, of course, the fact that the forbidden romance is between two men. Any attempt either to denounce or to downplay that fact runs the risk of perpetuating the homophobia the story implicitly critiques.

So how comes it, then, that the love story at the movie’s core feels so familiar and tugs at the heart strings in ways we recognize from other love stories? It’s one part acting, one part writing, and two parts directing. Choosing Ang Lee was a smart move, if not the most obvious one. Though he’s had his share of misfires, he has a rare gift for rendering previously marginalized “niche” or genre films—whether Jane Austen adaptation, wu xia epic, or gay romance—accessible to the broad middle swath of moviegoers. He achieves this not by pandering to the lowest common denominator, but rather by bringing a peculiar blend of involvement and detachment to his material. Fittingly for a Taiwanese director who’s been embraced yet not wholly assimilated by the Hollywood establishment, he always seems to have one foot in the world he’s filming and one foot outside it. From this measured perspective, he manages to draw out the pathos (or humor) of a human drama without losing sight of the larger social or cultural context that envelops it.

In this respect, “Brokeback” plays to Lee’s strengths. Based on a short story by E. Annie Proulx, as adapted and expanded by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, the film has a spare, desolate beauty that evokes both the sharp tang of Proulx’s writing and the hard-edged post-western sensibility behind “The Last Picture Show.” Lee etches a poignant visual contrast between the idyllic vistas of Brokeback Mountain and the cluttered, airless domestic interiors of the del Mar and Twist households. In so doing, he underlines not only the emotional suffocation wrought by years of frustrated desires, but also the social realities of an American West in which the cowboy was rapidly becoming an economically endangered species.

None of this, of course, would work without full contribution by the actors, and they deliver in spades. Ledger’s pretty much a lock for an Oscar nomination, and with good reason. Up till now I never really got why he was worth a fuss, either as an actor or as a heartthrob, but this movie’s made me a convert—at least as far as his acting is concerned. (We’ll see if “Casanova” wins me over on the other count.) As Ennis, his face is like granite, but his body language speaks the volumes his tongue and features can’t. Periodically, his expressionless calm explodes into a frenzy of physical violence that hints at the depths of his inner conflict; awaiting Jack’s first visit to his home, he says almost nothing, yet his restless movements betray the feverish pitch of his excitement. When he does attempt to articulate his feelings, his words dig like spurs. The last line of the movie— “Jack, I swear” —is Ledger’s, and it may be the most heartbreaking line in any movie this year.

Gyllenhaal is excellent, too, though in some ways he has the most difficult part to play, since Jack—the dreamer, the hopeful one—is not quite as fully developed a character as Ennis, and perhaps as a consequence, not quite as convincing. At times he sounds more like a petulant child than a tortured, angry man, though that may be as much a function of Jake’s baby face and voice as the way his character is written. But when he’s good, he’s fantastic. There’s a sequence in which Jack turns up unexpectedly at Ennis’s door, having heard of the latter’s divorce and assumed it means everything will change. In the space of maybe five minutes, as he learns it means no such thing, his face hardens from boyish expectancy to crestfallen disappointment, and, once he’s alone again, dissolves into tears of wordless anguish. That five-minute sequence says more than almost anything else in the movie.

Williams and Hathaway turn in solid supporting performances, though the film overall gives considerably more time and sympathy to the former than the latter. Even less developed is Linda Cardellini as a later girlfriend, and indeed it’s at about the point that she pops up that one begins to realize the movie may be trying to cover too much in a two-hour span. It’s not a perfectly constructed narrative by any standard, and there’s something a little monotonous (and a little abrupt) about the regularity with which it shifts from “Ennis’s life” to “Jack’s life” and back, in between Brokeback reunions. Lee also makes the mistake of inserting a repeated flashback in which Ennis recalls being taken as a child to see the mutilated body of a rancher who was murdered for daring to live with his male lover. Obviously this memory figures into his own fear of settling down with Jack, but it would have been enough for him to tell the story, without having a heavy-handed visual reenactment hammer home the point.

Fortunately, subtlety resumes sway in the final act. Near the very end, Ennis learns that his elder daughter is getting married. There are no recriminations, reproaches, or confessions; only an indirect acknowledgment of the pain that his own pain caused others, and his concern that she not fall victim to a similar mistake. It’s one of the best scenes in “Brokeback,” and it embodies the film’s essence: not a political tract, not a “statement” of any kind, but a sad story of love thwarted by self-deception, fear, and inexorable societal pressures. If it seems to derive greater resonance from the nature of the love and the societal pressures than it would otherwise have, that says more, perhaps, about society than it does about the story.


Also saw:


directed and written by Noah Baumbach
starring Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, William Baldwin, Anna Paquin

Finally got around to seeing this movie after intending to for months. Was it worth the wait? Almost. Based on director/writer Baumbach’s own experience of parental divorce, “The Squid and the Whale” is a clear-eyed, sharply written drama of family dissolution that presents its characters with biting humor and a touch---but only a touch---of compassion. That's possibly more than they deserve, given that these characters are for the most part thoroughly dislikable: the parents (Daniels and Linney) exemplify the worst features of the New York smart set (especially Daniels), while the two sons (Eisenberg and Kline) fall into textbook patterns of mimicry and dysfunctionality, respectively. Each son initially takes a side in the pa-ma faceoff, and then, with predictable symmetry, gradually shift places as they realize that both their parents are deeply flawed, if not deeply shitty, human beings. It’s a tribute to Daniels, one of the most underrated actors working today, that he manages to imbue his outwardly arrogant, inwardly deflating egoist with a measure of pathos and humanity. Linney, as always, is wonderful, and her character easily the most intriguing, if not the most admirable, of Baumbach’s quartet. Still, you can't help wonder what's wrong with a movie where the most sympathetic adult figure in it is a vacant tennis pro played by Billy Baldwin.

RATING: ** ¾


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