Brokeback Mountain (Focus Features, R)

Every now and then a movie comes along that is the right amount of formulaic and fresh. There’s a long tradition of gay cowboy movies in cult cinema (Alejandro Jodorowsky’s midnight movie staple El Topo, Andy Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys, and the Divine vehicle Lust in the Dust chief among them), but never before has the genre broken into the mainstream consciousness to any serious extent. Leave it to Ang Lee, who succeeds in popularizing the arty and failing in injecting art into the popular (his Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon almost single-handedly won foreign language films the mainstream audience which had long eluded them, but Lee had a massive bomb on his hands when he made Hulk a few years later), to cross the barrier and make a gay cowboy movie a serious Oscar contender and likely box office hit.

Brokeback Mountain is based on an E. Annie Proulx short story about two cowboys in Wyoming who fall in love while sequestered from society taking care of sheep for months on end. Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) is quiet, brooding, and stern, while the cowboy he’s assigned with, Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), is goofy and playful and outgoing, but they get along well and gradually progress from peers to friends to lovers. While Ennis and Jack are alone on Brokeback Mountain with their sheep, everyone’s happy, but when they go back to their regular lives after the assignment is over (both get married and Jack moves back to Texas, where he’s from), things don’t go as planned for either the characters or for the audience—or at least not the audience expecting a predictable and traditional dramatic arc.

Although pretty much everything about the movie is done well, the real key to its success is its depiction of Ennis and Jack’s courtship of one another…or lack thereof. The sex is sweaty and grunty, their love for each other is aggressive and masculine, and nothing seems out of character for these two otherwise stereotypically heterosexual men. Beyond that, the casting is also particularly inspired, with Ledger turning in a performance that nothing prior in his career has proven he would be capable of, and Gyllenhaal overcoming his Jared Leto–lite schtick to create a well-rounded character in Jack. The film’s two main supporting actresses are also of the never-before-taken-seriously variety, with Dawson’s Creek’s Michelle Williams playing Ennis’ wife Alma and The Princess Diaries’ Anne Hathaway playing Jack’s wife Lureen. Any of the film’s main cast members seem like possible Oscar contenders at this point, and all of them deserve the recognition; this will likely prove to be a career-making film for most of the actors involved (even those whose careers have already arguably been made).

Ledger’s delivery of the film’s final line is nothing short of amazing, and if Brokeback Mountain hasn’t won you over by that point, there really isn’t much hope for you as a moviegoer. Every now and then a movie comes along that is the right amount of formulaic and fresh, finding the right audience at the right time to becomes said audience’s new favorite film (American Beauty an example in recent memory); Brokeback Mountain is one such film.

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