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Riveting Romance

Heath Ledger's stunning performance leads a beautiful film that lives up to all the hype

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Director Ang Lee has the distinction of making the worst English-language superhero movie of all time (Hulk) and the silliest movie ever to win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Cheney). So with Brokeback Mountain, I assumed he was going for a hat trick and would make the most manipulative piece of bathos possible.

I really couldn't have been more wrong. While Brokeback Mountain's previews made it seem like a "puppy movie" (i.e., the kind of film that sits up, stares at you imploringly with big, brown eyes and begs for an Oscar), it's actually a perfectly crafted romantic weeper and one of the best films of the year (last year, technically, but I bet it'll be one of the best films of this year, too).

The most notable things about Brokeback Mountain are the gorgeous shots of the Western countryside and Heath Ledger's completely unexpected and riveting performance.

Ledger plays Ennis Del Mar, who, in contradistinction to his surname, has spent his entire life landlocked in the mountain states. Ennis is the kind of guy who thinks of clearing his throat as the equivalent of a filibuster. In the summer of 1963, he gets a job guarding sheep in a national forest. There, he meets Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), an affable and talkative young man who coaxes Ennis out of his shell.

Up in the high mountains of Wyoming where they work as shepherds, they fall in love and begin a romantic relationship that lasts the rest of their lives. Of course, if they simply lived happily ever after, we wouldn't have a movie, so, in the tradition of tales like Splendor in the Grass and All That Heaven Allows, something must prevent our protagonists from simply living in love.

In this case, it's the fact that love between shepherds was taboo in Wyoming in the 1960s. Actually, I'm not sure it's terribly popular in Wyoming today, but back then, suspected shepherds were often beaten, pistol whipped, tied to a fence and left to die.

So when Ennis and Jack come back down the mountain, they go their separate ways, marry, raise kids and generally lead ordinary lives. Except a couple times a year, for the next 15 years, they meet in the high country to re-live their one summer of love.

It's your basic beautiful and tragic love story, and it's really a pretty standard tale (except for the fact that the lovers meet while guarding sheep ... I don't think I've ever seen that in a romance before). What sets Brokeback apart from other films is the precision with which it presents its story.

The only misstep in the whole film is the initial romantic encounter, which seemed somewhat unlikely. There was just no strong indication that Jack and Ennis had a romantic attraction, so the scene seems somewhat unmotivated. Once the romance is established, their relationship seems perfectly natural, but I think it's hard to convey the interiority of the initial moment with characters like this: Jack is usually flip, and Ennis is so repressed that he can barely speak.

And it's here that Heath Ledger really shines. He creates in Ennis what would be a parody of a macho man, wordless, strong and devoid of any expression of feeling. But his Ennis is clearly much more than that. By fixing his mouth very tightly when he does speak, Ledger conveys the tensions of Ennis' inner life. He also universalizes the character by the subtlety of the emotional expression. When an actor emotes, it's a good show-off move, but the more extreme the presentation of the emotion, the more the audience is able to simply read off the feeling the character is supposed to have, rather than having to interpret, and thus inhabit, the character. Ledger creates ambiguity in his emotional space, and this draws the viewer into Ennis' inner life.

This is a tough act to pull off, because too much blankness would rob the role of character and prevent audience identification. Ledger always intimates that there are intense feelings, but never betrays exactly what those feelings are.

In the end, this makes Brokeback Mountain Ledger's movie, and the script reflects this. Ennis has the final word, a devastating last line that indicates an intense sense of loss, but also that everything was worthwhile, and that his life was supremely enriched by his relationship with Jack.

The richness of the relationship is reflected in the lushness of the photography. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who previously shined in Amores Perros and 21 Grams, does by far his best work here. It's easy to get great shots of Wyoming's mountains, but Prieto creates a slow and sensuous relationship with the land. In one of the most memorable shots, the camera thrusts into the cleft between two buttes as the scene is split by stream of white sheep cascading through the rift.

With Prieto and Ledger on his side, director Lee could probably have just walked off the set and let things take their course, but his directorial hand is strong and sure here. He coaxes some amazing performances out of Anne Hathaway (The Princess Diaries) and Michelle Williams (Dawson's Creek), who play Jack and Ennis' wives, respectively.

Some audience members, though, might find one aspect of this film objectionable: Both Hathaway and Williams appear topless. While I think America is mature enough to accept seeing former teen stars exposing themselves in the name of art, apparently there has already been a backlash against Brokeback Mountain, and at least one theater is refusing to show it, which seems a queer overreaction to what is a natural (and beautiful) image.

But if you're not completely breast-phobic, and you enjoy romance, Western scenery and tremendous acting, then you'll no doubt find in Brokeback Mountain a perfectly executed romantic tear-jerker.

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