In a just universe, Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain would've been the capstone of Nicholas Ray's career: It's the mournful here-and-queer saddle opera aching to leap out of Johnny Guitar's closet. (It also would've starred Paul Newman and Robert Redford.) But whether you consider Lee a purveyor of middlebrow pap or an empathetic observer of emotional reticence, he's a fruitful choice for this haunting modern Western about the lifelong love affair between two cowboys--one a brash cutup (Jake Gyllenhaal), the other an inarticulate loner (Heath Ledger). The movie is affecting not because it defies tradition, but because--apart from its' heroes sexuality--it's so deeply and unfussily conventional. (It premieres in the Twin Cities at the tail end of the Walker's Lee retro before opening at the Uptown on December 16.)
Adapted by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana from an Annie Proulx novella, Brokeback Mountain begins like any male-bonding sagebrush saga, with the coded homoerotica that straight audiences accept without blinking: Buddies Jack (Gyllenhaal) and Ennis (Ledger) drive livestock, bunk under the stars, and wash off discreetly. But when Ennis clumsily mounts Jack, in a scene that's shocking mostly for its raw plainness, the movie turns the beefcake subtext of a Red River into the text. The effect is of having a layer of varnish stripped off a sturdy and well-worn piece of furniture--an old thing seen as if for the first time.
With his undervalued gift for linking his character's interiors with their exteriors--the unbound Hulk bounding across desert wasteland, the uprooted Civil Warriors of Ride with the Devil plunging into a Balkan Missouri--Lee turns Montana's big sky country into a rugged yet desolate idyll, a place that portends only hard times for romantics. And so the elegiac tone of McMurtry's Last Picture Show takes over the film's second half, as Jack and Ennis each marry women (Anne Hathaway and Michelle Williams), grow older and sadder, and find only mutual isolation. The attempt to cover so many years leaves the movie choppy and somewhat truncated for long stretches, and Ledger's risky, emotionally throttled performance makes it initially tough to gauge the depth of the character's passion, let alone share it. (Gyllenhaal is at first the more engaging, but Ledger ages better: It's plain from this and Lords of Dogtown that a character actor's heart beats under those flossy-Aussie looks.) But the last half-hour builds to a staggering final shot, a brilliant reworking of the iconographic image that concludes The Searchers. Imagine a closet door closing on John Wayne instead of a homesteader's cabin; either way, Lee suggests, the tragedy is the same--the dashed promise of joining civilization.