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Brokeback Mountain

The most talked about movie of 2005 shocked audiences by brazenly snaring an Oscar nomination for a former cast member of "Dawson's Creek." Also controversial was the movie's subject matter: a decades-long gay affair between two cowboys. Hollywood celebrated the film for its unusually frank portrayal of homosexual passion, and sympathetic audiences turned this small $14 million drama into a sleeper of blockbuster proportions. The unconventional concept behind Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain also struck the American funny-bone, provoking a million late-night jokes, watercooler jibes, and Internet parodies, while some cultural critics bemoaned the movie's fawning advocates as smug liberal elitism personified. Brokeback Mountain so saturated the media that Brokeback-fatigue was credited for its upset Best Picture loss to Crash at the Academy Awards. In the middle of all of the hype and posturing, an interesting, intimate, and complex movie has been publicly deconstructed, misconceived, and reassembled into a vague and rumored version of itself. Now on DVD, the real Brokeback Mountain gets a chance to clear the record and stand apart from all its attendant chatter.

Heath Ledger stars as Ennis Del Mar and Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack Twist, a couple of hard-luck young cowhands who are hired together to mind sheep on Wyoming's Brokeback Mountain during the summer of 1963. Their work is rough and isolating, months spent camping alone in harsh weather, in each other's company only for meals, and outside contact limited to once-weekly supply deliveries. Jack, the careless son of a bull-rider, enjoys the freedom he finds so close to nature, but he isn't as fond of the work or loneliness; taciturn Ennis is more adept and obedient to the tough discipline of his vocation. However, with some prompting from Jack, Ennis not only opens up a little, but following a night of drinking joins Jack in the pup tent for some rough sex. This new facet to their relationship distracts the confused Ennis from his responsibilities, and after their boss (Randy Quaid) discovers the mess made of his flock, he fires them both. Ennis stays in Wyoming and marries Alma (Michelle Williams), who bears him two daughters. Jack joins a rodeo circuit and marries a precocious cowgirl, Lureen (Anne Hathaway). Soon after they have a son, and Jack goes to work selling farm machinery in Texas for her successful father. But after four years of traditional domesticity, restless Jack calls on Ennis, who — despite his sense of duty to his girls — eagerly rekindles their affair, beginning two decades of semi-annual "fishing" trips to the mountains where they first consummated their secret bond. Ennis makes for an awkward rule-breaker, and, in a flash of indiscretion, Alma witnesses the uncommon affection between the old friends, which leads to the slow disintegration of their marriage. Jack remains married to Lureen, but he struggles to counter the masculine Texan swagger of her domineering dad. As their two separate lives grow increasingly dull, dead, and forlorn, Ennis' and Jack's periodic liaisons at Brokeback Mountain become all either of them look forward to in life.

On its very surface, it's easy to read Brokeback Mountain, as many have — a simple statement in support of gay rights. Had Ennis and Jack not felt compelled by societal mores to marry heterosexually and raise families, they might not have endured such emotionally bleak lives. Alternatively, one might imagine, if Jack and Ennis had lived together (as Jack suggests) and "ranched up," they may well have had a fulfilling long-term relationship with none of the drudgery of work-for-hire or stress of unemployment during times of scarcity. But a more careful look at Brokeback Mountain draws those easy conclusions into muddy irresolution, if not doubt. As it deals, in part, with the corrosive nature of secrets, nearly every scene in Brokeback is about some form of deceit — most of the movie plays out in subtext as the characters repeatedly lie to each other, and themselves. In an era of postmodern film critique, where critics and film-school professors illuminate alleged gay subtext in macho Old Hollywood cowboy movies, Brokeback turns the tables. Early on, when Jack tells Ennis that, although they're both supposed to eat beans for dinner every night, he'd much rather break the rules and kill one of the sheep they're paid to protect, it's no longer clever to read this as a straightforward metaphor for Jack's socially taboo homosexual urges. The subtext of old has become the new text, and something different is going on between the lines. The fact is that Jack and Ennis make a tough couple to pin up as icons for social policy arguments. While scenes of their relationships with their spouses are full of emotionally charged successes and, moreso, failures, the Ennis-Jack partnership remains pretty much a blank slate throughout. Their early encounters are violent, and as they re-engage on their lifelong tryst, their trips to Brokeback become more about escapism from their empty adult lives than mileposts of an enduring love story. One on one, Jack and Ennis are dysfunctional and destructive, with Jack's chronic manipulations inevitably resulting in Ennis' disastrous slips into irresponsibility. Would or could they have really shared an idyllic life together if only they had been allowed? Or was the physical, uncompromising, natural locale of Brokeback Mountain really just an idealized fantasy refuge recalling the freedom of youth for two struggling older men to tune out the complicating interferences of their daily grown-up lives — and, in the process, further disenchant and detach themselves from any possibility of everyday happiness in the real world? These are the questions that Brokeback Mountain puts to its viewers, and they are less about the emergence of a gay-tolerant America and more about the very business of fiction and filmmaking, where characters' motivations remain obscure and open to continuous interpretation. If the film remains a topic of discussion over several years, if not decades, one hopes it will be because it says more about two interesting, complex men than it does about any one group they are alleged to represent.

Universal Studios Home Entertainment presents Brokeback Mountain on DVD in a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. The disc includes four featurettes: the Logo Movie Special "Sharing the Story: The Making of Brokeback Mountain" (20 min.), "Directing From the Heart: Ang Lee" (7 min.), "On Being A Cowboy" about the cast learning tricks of the cowboy trade (5 min.), and " From Script to Screen: Interviews with Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana" (10 min.). Keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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