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The Secret Lives of Cowboys
REVIEW: Brokeback Mountain


Ever since I read it in The New Yorker back in 1997, Annie Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain" has been one of my favorite short stories. The breadth of emotion Proulx is able to convey in just a few short pages is epic in scope, and by the end of my first reading, the pages of my magazine were wet with tears.

It is with that expectation that I went to see the screen version, Ang Lee's adaptation starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, a film I had been writing about for months on this site.

I saw the film in early September. I've declined to write about it till now because I wanted to let it sink in for awhile, wanted to see if a month later I was still feeling the same way about it. And I am.

Lee's adaptation is everything I wanted it to be — stunning visually, emotionally solid, true to the original story — but at its core it expresses a knowledge of the secrecy and the gut-wrenching pain that gays experience when required to abide by society's heterosexual models for fear that their true feelings, if exposed, will engender shame, humiliation, or violence. This film begins in the early 60's but we all know that even today there are men who live entire lives in the closet, never able to allow life its full expression.

So it is in the spare, hard, rugged Wyoming of Brokeback Mountain, a place so determinedly straight that we are shown early on that those thought to be queer run the risk of being beaten into a bloody, ragged corpse and left to die by the side of the road.

BbmountainBut sometimes fate offers an opening, as it does when Ennis del Mar (Ledger) and Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal) are hired to herd sheep together up on Brokeback. Up on that isolated ridge, they find the time and place to consummate the lust inside of them and once that genie is out of the bottle it can never be put back. And once the intense outpouring of first lust has passed, it's almost impossible to recapture, particularly when the rules in the rugged, rural west are that men must marry women and father children.

"A one shot thing we got goin' on here," del Mar says to Twist, in tune with the painful realities.

That is the crux of this movie, an epic, slow-moving, genius film that is not so much a film about the taboo nature of gay sex as it is about the pain that will no doubt prevail when one is forced to hide one's true sexual proclivities behind a veil of secrecy.

"I wish I knew how to quit you," famously uttered by one of the cowboys in the movie's trailer, betrays both a personal conflict and a societal one, and Lee demonstrates that he understands both heartbreakingly well.

Although the American West serves as the foil for this particular gay story, being forced into secrecy is a situation that homosexuals throughout history have accepted out of necessity. That is why this film, though it takes place over a span of nearly two decades, feels thoroughly modern.

And then there's the sex. For the first time, two young A-list actors rising in their careers have taken on roles that require them to not only sell an audience their affection toward one another, but also their overt sexual undertakings.

TentConsider me sold.

The two actors make out hungrily, wrestle around, intimately embrace naked by the golden light of a campfire, and if you've read the Proulx short story you'll remember this bit:

"Ennis ran full-throttle on all roads whether fence mending or money spending, and he wanted none of it when Jack seized his left hand and brought it to his erect cock. Ennis jerked his hand away as though he'd touched fire, got to his knees, unbuckled his belt, shoved his pants down, hauled Jack onto all fours and, with the help of the clear slick and a little spit, entered him, nothing he'd done before but no instruction manual needed."

Those who come to Brokeback expecting Falcon video's Buckleroos will no doubt be sorely disappointed. But Ang Lee's visual shorthand does Proulx's erotic storytelling justice. There was more than enough sex for me in the context of this story, because the emotional tension makes the small moments count for so much. Those intent on seeing full nudity will see it in a less charged context as well — Twist changing by a lake, del Mar skinnydipping in a river.

What makes Brokeback something that may draw in all audiences and not just gay ones is the fact that it is a love story, a uniquely dramatic tale of forbidden love in a highly familiar cinematic context.

WilliamsLedger gives an astonishingly mature performance as the gruff, pent-up, strong and silent Del Mar while Gyllenhaal's rangy and likable Jack Twist fills the tale with a recklessly unfolding hope that lingers long after the movie reaches its dramatic conclusion. Anne Hathaway and Michelle Williams give seamless expression to the frustration of Western women — in Williams' case, the simmering fire of knowledge about her husband's secret exposes a world of pain. She's quite brilliant.

The film is gorgeous to look at from its opening scene — a truck winding its way across big sky country; the gray, wooly rivers of sheep the cowboys drive up the side of the mountain; and an impossibly idyllic buttery moon that flickers over those lust-hungry nights on Brokeback Mountain. Gustavo Santaolalla's score is spare and haunting.

Lee has made a film many are calling "old-fashioned" because of its quiet, linear pacing. Be ready for that when you experience it and don't mistake it for anything close to naivete. It's just one of the ways that Lee has honored Proulx's storytelling while at the same time subverting the long-honored American cinematic tradition of the Western that is expected to move at a less than frantic pace.

I've given this film a lot of ink on these pages, and I'm happy to say it was well worth it.

Brokeback Mountain opens in theaters in December.

Brokeback Mountain Trailer Online [tr]
Heath on Brokeback: Fear Conquered [tr]
Thoughts on the Brokeback Mountain trailer [tr]
Love is a Force of Nature [tr]
Heath on Brokeback: Best Script Ever Read [tr]
Jake "Coy" on Brokeback Love Scenes [tr]
The Brokeback Tease Continues... [tr]
Cowboy Ballads [tr]
Brokeback Mountain Teaser Trailer [tr]
Heath and Jake Swap Spit [tr]
Cowboy Love [tr]

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  1. Very nice review. Thanks for sharing, Andy.

    Posted by: arjanwrites | Oct 12, 2005 3:00:20 PM

  2. ...dying to see this flic, finally something to look forward to in december.
    ang lee is one amazing director, The HULK was quite brilliantly shot... and crouching tiger is now classic.
    THANKS for an valuable review.

    Posted by: A.J. | Oct 12, 2005 3:01:24 PM

  3. I still remember sobbing as the story concluded. I do remember there was sex in the story, but most of all I remember the love and the loss. I just pray that I won't sob as loudly in the movie theatre.

    Posted by: Mike in the Tundra | Oct 12, 2005 3:22:50 PM

  4. I've read all your Brokeback postings and have to admit the idea of a "gay cowwboy movie" made me a little more than nervous. If there's anything gay people don't need, it's a sensational outting in nationwide release. I can only imagine how our puritanical society would react. After seeing the trailer and reading this review I am assured the movie will be everything I had hoped for an nothing I had feared. The trailer alone is heartbreaking. When Heath Ledger is smelling what I assume is Jake G's shirt, it went through me like a hot iron. Everyone can identify with that emotion. I can't wait for the chance to see this movie and I can't wait for the rest of America to see what sounds like an honest and emotional picture of being gay in this society. I hope it opens some minds. Thanks for all the pushing you've done on this one, Andy. You've obviosuly given it a lot of thought.

    Posted by: MT | Oct 12, 2005 3:25:51 PM

  5. I cannot wait. Thanks for the review - very well done.

    Posted by: Thom | Oct 12, 2005 3:27:22 PM

  6. I, like Thom, can't wait. I am reminded why I have been such a fan of your work since the days when I read Genre. I was happy to follow you to your blog and blessed by your grace here.

    Posted by: dan | Oct 12, 2005 4:11:06 PM

  7. Outstanding review Andy. You didn't tell us, did you cry??

    I'm so happy all reports have been positive. I'm going to a screening here in NYC in a couple of weeks and I'm more anxious than ever.

    Posted by: Ian | Oct 12, 2005 4:53:14 PM

  8. I vividly remember my eyes welling up at the "shirt" scene at the end of the book when I read this years ago. This, more than any other scene, is what I most look forward to seeing.

    Posted by: gabe | Oct 12, 2005 4:54:38 PM

  9. Very well written review. I too have seen the film and you have captured it so well. Also, thank you for everything that you do on this blog for the community. You rock!

    Posted by: AL | Oct 12, 2005 4:56:53 PM

  10. Yours is the review I trust above all others.

    From one who loves the story just as much, thank you.

    Posted by: John Beene | Oct 12, 2005 5:40:00 PM

  11. Can't wait to see it now!

    Posted by: Senhor Made In Brazil | Oct 12, 2005 5:41:07 PM

  12. What a great review! I'm a newcomer to your blog, but it's now a "favorite" and I'll be here daily!

    Posted by: john | Oct 12, 2005 6:07:19 PM

  13. Thanks for writing this review. Just reading it and all the other readers' comments made me tear up. Will be seeing the movie in less than two weeks, so it's very timely.

    Posted by: Jacques | Oct 12, 2005 6:18:32 PM

  14. Thanks for sharing that review with us Andy.

    I hope the public accepts it for the great work it is.

    Posted by: Rob (lrdarystar) | Oct 12, 2005 6:24:47 PM

  15. Ufff!
    If you say it so, I BELIEVE!

    Posted by: André | Oct 12, 2005 6:30:30 PM

  16. I share John's comment , I too just found this site a short time ago and was an immediate "favorite" look forward to it always. Can not wait to see it thanks for the goose bumps !!

    Posted by: Kevin | Oct 12, 2005 7:16:59 PM

  17. once again, thank you for your penetrating insights and poignant observations, encapsulated in scintillating prose.

    Posted by: towleroad groupie | Oct 12, 2005 10:04:12 PM

  18. Thanks Andy! You're the BEST!

    Posted by: Jordy | Oct 12, 2005 11:13:29 PM

  19. Even if the movie is only a twinge as heartfelt and eloquent as your review - and I'm sure that it's much more - it still definitely needs to be seen. Perhaps a new benchmark for future "gay-themed" cinema? Thanks for sharing a great review, Andy! And an awesome site - one of my faves and an inspiration for my own.

    Posted by: Ryan | Oct 12, 2005 11:50:14 PM

  20. ANDY - you have an amazing talent for writing... have you ever done it professionally? There are well-paid critics out there who can't examine a film as eloquently and insightfully as you can. No joke.

    Posted by: Bithysith | Oct 13, 2005 12:03:19 AM

  21. Thanks, Andy. I'm not going to write about this film when it opens, except to like to this entry.

    Posted by: R J Keefe | Oct 13, 2005 12:09:01 AM

  22. Andy,

    You’ve done a wonderful job writing about the short story and the movie. It is a true love story with a sad commentary on our society. I am looking forward to the movie. For a fun alternative version of the guy-meets-guy love story, look for the book “Almost Like Being in Love” by Steve Kluger. In quite a different tone from Proulx's Brokeback Mountain, Kluger writes a bit of a fairy tale (no pun intended) look at romance and love. A high school jock and “musical theater devotee” (among other things) fall in love in 1978, separate and then one seeks out the other 20 years later. What happened to your first love? This book lets you laugh not cry. We need both the stories that make you cry and those that make you smile.

    Posted by: Doug | Oct 13, 2005 1:26:28 AM

  23. Andy, thanks for a great review, and thanks the wonderful director Lee for making a powerful and touching movie, looking forward to seeing it.

    Posted by: DOCVIC FROM TAIPEI | Oct 13, 2005 1:37:06 AM

  24. Andy,

    I read your earlier comments on this story and your hopes for the movie. Glad to see that you weren't dissapointed.

    Your review is lucid, illuminating, broad in scope and sparse of language. A precis on a short story done with grace and eloquence. Thank you!

    Posted by: Ron | Oct 13, 2005 3:24:12 AM

  25. Andy, your review of Brokeback Mountain is magnificently well crafted which stirs emotion and inspires the reader with delicious anticipation for the opening of this film. The growth and evolution of your talents are indeed wonderful.

    Posted by: Johnny Lane | Oct 13, 2005 6:11:28 AM

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