Elegantly shot by Rodrigo Prieto (the look of Alberta, Canada’s plains is evocative of the story’s emotional pull) and scored by Gustavo Santaolalla, “Brokeback Mountain” is a penetrating examination of love. Not straight love. Not gay love. Just love. True, at the heart of Ang Lee’s bracing, poignant story is a love story between two ranch hands that would send the portion of the population that voted to ban gay marriage in ’04 for the hills (or at least, into a lesser movie), but they need not be afraid; the film- which has become a bona-fide success and Oscar front-runner- lacks the graphic scenes of man-on-man physical contact that made Pedro Almodovar’s “Bad Education” sometimes uncomfortable even as it riveted with a delicious noir story (though for the fans of Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal that care, there’s enough nudity with each to please).
What is unabashedly on display, however, are the emotions that spring up when Ledger’s Ennis and Gyllenhaal’s Jack- who are working as ranch hands for a sleazy boss (Randy Quaid puts an unforgettable face on the intolerance to come)- have sex one cold night in the mountains when they’re supposed to be tending their bosses sheep. Though it appears from the get go that Jack is interested (a slight fault- especially since Jack later says he isn’t queer after the night- compared to the eventual pow delivered in Gyllenhaal’s acting, which is on-par with his stellar work in “Jarhead”), the night happens naturally, as does the relationship that goes beyond friendship to genuine longing as Ennis and Jack spend the next 20 years of their lives (bravo to the makeup department for convincingly aging the 20-something actors) trying to build normal lives for themselves while feeling the pull of emotions that complicate their lives and tear at their souls.
If there was any questioning of Lee’s status as one of the premiere filmmakers of our time after 2003’s ambitious failure “Hulk” (which for me was never as bad as people say), a moment of silence as it passes. In fact, “Mountain” actually illuminates “Hulk” in a way and puts it in some context with some of Lee’s other recent films. Before you call the authorities to come put me in a straight-jacket, allow me to explain. When considering Lee’s work on a broad level (though I haven’t seen his pre-“Sense and Sensibility” Taiwanese films or 1999’s “Ride With the Devil”), don’t “Hulk” and “Mountain” have a thematic unity of men burying their feelings deep down into themselves that distance themselves from the women in their lives.
OK, it doesn’t quite work because Bruce Banner in “Hulk”- a fantasy- had a woman in Jennifer Connolly’s Betty that was prepared to walk that thorny emotional terrain with him, while the emotions Ennis (played with muted depths of desire and denial by Heath Ledger in the performance of his career) and Jack dare not let their wives see distance them from the family’s they’ve tried to make for themselves with Ennis’ wife Alma (played by Ledger’s real-life love Michelle Williams, playing an emotionally damaged woman with a painful resentment and betrayal that stings far beyond one could possibly imagine from the “Dawson’s Creek” beauty) and Jack’s wife Lurleen (played by “The Princess Diaries'” Anne Hathaway with glowing charm at the start that grows ever-bitter as Jack’s desire for Ennis grows stronger after the two reunite after four years apart). Still, it just illustrates why Lee was so correct to direct this film (adapted from Annie Proulx’s short story with startling gravity and delicacy by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana); he has the passion for intimate feeling that goes beyond archetypes and genre conventions that result in rapturous works of art (such as this, 1997’s “The Ice Storm,” and 2000’s all-time-great “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon,” which also explores deep reserves of romantic longing in its’ key relationships) that reveals emotional truths we never saw coming from the material. Lee may have been seduced by his visionary hubris- stoked by the deafening and deserving praise of “Crouching Tiger”- on the otherwise-silly “Hulk,” but is anyone surprised that an unshakable tale of gay love on the range brought out the purest art from one of the great cinematic artists of the past 10 years?