Friday, January 19, 2007

Back to the Closet in Brokeback Mountain

One of the most hyped and talked about films these days, Brokeback Mountain elicits varied reactions. Most heap praises for its twist on the old Western genre, some express dismay over the ending, others were surprised that it did not take home the Best Picture Award in the recently concluded 78th Annual Academy Awards. Based on the short story by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Proulx, it is set against the mountains and plains of Wyoming and Texas in the 1960s.

Brokeback Mountain features two of Hollywood’s sexiest and most sought after actors - Jake Gyllenhaal (of The Day After Tomorrow and Jarhead) plays Jack Twist, a rodeo cowboy wanna-be, and Heath Ledger (of A Knight’s Tale and Casanova) plays Ennis del Mar, a quiet and reserved ranch-hand. Though touted as a “gay cowboy movie,” Jack and Ennis proclaim they are not “queers” and they take care of sheep, not cows. While tending the herd of sheep in Brokeback Mountain, the Jack and Ennis strike a friendship that turns into a life long affection.

After their summer in Brokeback Mountain, both men return to the usual grind of their lives – Jack marries the rich and feisty rodeo queen Lureen Newsome (played by Princess Diary’s Anne Hathaway) and Ennis marries the reserved and homely Alma (played by Dawson’s Creek’s Michelle Williams). As both men struggle to live their “normal” lives with their respective wives and children, they continue to see each other in their “fishing” trysts reminiscent of the film Same Time Next Year (Ellen Burstyn and Alan Alda’s 1978 classic). The two men’s love story tragically ends in heartbreak with Jack’s death.

The film took a long time to develop its narrative – at times plunging viewers into boredom. But the film is salvaged by a formidable ensemble of performers. Michelle Williams strong performance is worthy of an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress – haunting, controlled, desperate and poignant. Heath Ledger’s portrayal as Ennis is most mature and subdued, deserving of the Academy Awards nomination for Best Actor. Jake Gyllenhaal’s acting shows his range, at times childlike then shifts to desperate. He does not merely rely on his doe eyes to elicit emotions – when he is begging for Ennis to spend more time, he is irresistible. Barely noticeable is Anne Hathaway who exhibits spunk and zest at first but quickly faded into the background. Rodrigo Prieto’s (of Amores Perros and 21 Grams) cinematography wonderfully captures the vista of Wyoming and Texas.

Ang Lee’s direction is restrained and calculated showing just enough fervor between the two men, their desperation of being apart, their painful longing to be together. But Ang Lee (of The Hulk, Eat Drink Man Woman and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) does not give us enough to go on with – not enough intimate moments to make us believe that their feelings for each other are growing deeper and not enough passion (except for their first night together and the famous kiss) to make sparks fly. While we are witnesses to their first intimate encounter, we did not witness furtive glances or special touches between Jack and Ennis before that could lead us and them to that moment. It makes it difficult to fall in love with the characters, to feel what they felt, and to long for what they longed for.

Brokeback Mountain is a film afraid to come out – it failed to show us the depths of emotions between the two men and the heights of their passion. It is also worthy to note that for supposed a gay movie, it is the women who bare their clothes in several frontal scenes and the sex scenes are mostly heterosexual in nature - maybe to appease to the dominant white, straight, male movie audience

In an unimaginative last scene, Ang Lee brings us back to the closet - figuratively and literally, with Ennis crying with Jack’s shirt, and then stuffing it back to his closet. Disappointingly and ultimately, Brokeback Mountain is a closeted movie.

*I wrote this for ICON magazine's April to May issue but they did not print it, hmmm. Guess they did not agree with me. Oh well.

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