[Screen It]

(2005) (Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger) (R)

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Drama: Two bisexual cowboys must deal with their secret love for one another as they meet on camping trips over the course of several decades.
It's 1963 and cowboys Jack Twist (JAKE GYLLENHAAL) and Ennis Del Mar (HEATH LEDGER) accept jobs herding farmer Joe Aguirre's (RANDY QUAID) sheep over the Wyoming countryside. With one sleeping with the sheep and the other tending camp, it's a lonely and often cold occupation. After an evening of drinking on one particularly freezing night, they end up sharing a tent and have sex.

The next morning, neither talks of the encounter and goes about their business, but the two are soon hooked on each other, despite Ennis being engaged to Alma Beers (MICHELLE WILLIAMS). When the job is done, the two cowboys go their separate ways, with Ennis marrying Alma and Jack eventually doing the same with Lureen Newsome (ANNE HATHAWAY), a fellow rodeo performer, with both couples ending up having kids.

The years pass, but when Jack visits Ennis, the two take up right where they left off, much to Alma's shock, although she doesn't let on that she's seen them together. The two head off for a fishing trip and enjoy each other's company, with Jack wanting the two to move in together. Having seen -- as a child -- the fatal repercussions of being gay out in their neck of the woods, Ennis won't have any part of that. Yet, the two continue to see each other over the ensuing decades, during which they try to sort out their feelings about themselves and each other.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Come along as we journey back into the world of stereotypes. It's there where cowboys are rugged men, the epitome of masculinity in the form of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. And if you wanted a cowboy slightly in touch with his feminine side, there was always Robert Redford, although he was still a man's man. Speaking of that, in our world of stereotypes, gay men are, well, like the more flamboyant members of the "Queer Eye" crew or Jack on TV's "Will & Grace."

Of course, in the real world, such stereotypes obviously exist and persist, but the truth is usually somewhere in between the extremes. Cowboys, gay men and everyone else come in all forms and personalities, with the unifying theme being that they're all looking for acceptance, companionship and love of one form or another.

That's clearly the underlying element of Ang Lee's "Brokeback Mountain," a picture that rightly but also stereotypically is being billed as the first mainstream, gay cowboy movie. And no, it's not a parody or buddy comedy. Instead, it's a period drama covering twenty some years in the lives of two cowboys who get sheep-herding jobs together, end up falling for each other and must then deal with those feelings that they keep secret from others over the ensuing decades.

Working from Larry McMurty's adaptation of E. Annie Proulx's short story, Lee -- who returns to more intimate dealings after the debacle that was "Hulk" -- has fashioned an unusual but affecting love story that greatly benefits from the performances of its two leads, but suffers a bit from a number of notable, but certainly not fatal flaws.

Chief among them is an overlong running time as well as a pace that might be akin to the image of an unhurried cowpoke idling away on the range, but will likely drive some viewers stir crazy. Lee -- who's also explored the human relationship thing in films such as "The Ice Storm" and "Sense and Sensibility" -- is obviously doing it on purpose for symbolic reasons, but there's no denying this is a slow-moving, 130-plus minutes of watching Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal longing for each other. That is, when they're not rolling around in the great western countryside in scenes that likely won't play that well with close-minded or homophobic viewers.

While the two don't believably age over the film's twenty-some year time span (c'mon makeup people, you can do better than this) and the plot ends up feeling like a gay version of the Alan Alda/Ellen Burstyn romantic drama "Same Time, Next Year" (but without the social commentary of the changing times they witness and experience), Lee does succeed in getting us to believe the two men truly care for each other.

Symbolically akin to the leads taking the risk of playing such parts in today's socio-political climate, the characters they play face the consequences of being gay in an age and society that didn't exactly welcome that sort of lifestyle with open arms. That, coupled with their bisexuality (both are married with kids) leads to external and internal conflict for both.

That's good, because as we know, conflict leads to drama. And with good dramatic elements comes the possibility of equally good performances. While Gyllenhaal gets the more dynamic role, Ledger is a bit more convincing in his part, even if his clinched jaw and padded jowl -- while symbolic of the tension and conflicts he's holding in, in true cowboy fashion -- are a bit too much of a cowboy stereotype.

The actresses playing opposite them -- Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway -- are also good, with Williams delivering a terrific look at a woman who's shocked, distraught and disillusioned by her husband's gay adulterous ways. Hathaway, meanwhile, might shock some with her character that's about as far away from "The Princess Diaries" as one can imagine.

If the thought of two men kissing (and more in one rather graphic scene) gets your hackles up, you might be wise to skip this offering. On the other hand, if you're willing to see that love transcends the stereotypical sexual boundaries, you might be intrigued by this offering. Slow but engaging, and brimming with wonderful cinematography, strong performances and just enough directorial flourishes to make it compelling, "Brokeback Mountain" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 30, 2005 / Posted December 16, 2005

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