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Essay

A Picture of Two Americas In 'Brokeback Mountain'

Director Ang Lee's images reinforce the metaphor of men out on the mountain but closeted at home.
Director Ang Lee's images reinforce the metaphor of men out on the mountain but closeted at home. (Focus Features)

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By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 2, 2006

The eight Academy Award nominations secured this week by Ang Lee's "Brokeback Mountain" guarantee that not only will the film itself continue to prosper at the box office, but that the bitter culture war surrounding the gay-themed western will continue to be fought.

Liberals will see the film as a beacon of tolerance, a study of the cruel pathologies of intolerance, a plea for acceptance for the humane principle that love between consenting adults, no matter their gender or orientation, should be celebrated.

Conservatives will see the liberal tyranny of an entertainment culture forcing elitist "progressive values" on the reluctant red-state millions and, in the process, staining the purity of the most American of good ol' American genres, the western, home of Duke Wayne, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.

Boys, boys, boys, settle down. Put them shootin' irons away. It's only a movie.

But the question remains: Does "Brokeback Mountain" have an agenda? After all, it's certainly not preachy. It's as stoic as the men it follows and the mountain it loves. It's a story of a love that dare not speak its name because nobody in it knows the word for its name.

All that is true. But again, a movie is a collection of images, not just words. What is said is secondary to the imagery -- images, in the hands of a skillful filmmaker, such as the great Lee ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is his most well-known, "Eat Drink Man Woman" his best), are ideas. They carry ideas. They issue proclamations. They lobby for policy.

And what do Lee's images tell us?

Based on an Annie Proulx short story, it's the tale of two young cowboys, Ennis Del Mar (Oscar-nominated Heath Ledger, in a superb performance) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal, also nominated), who are hired to spend the summer of 1963 up Wyoming's Brokeback Mountain, tending a herd of sheep far from civilization. Both are of the rural proletariat, ranch-bred, horse-proud, sinewy, resourceful, brave, tough, industrious, poorly educated. You can bet they don't care much about the sheep they've got to tend; they'd much rather spend time running the more noble beef cattle. Neither is a talker or a reader; their only solace over the long nights is tailor-made smokes and whiskey neat.

The last thing these two ever figured on is falling in love. With each other.

The movie then jumps over the years, four or five at a stretch, as each fights against what turns out to be his true nature, and forces himself to genuflect before the stations of the cross of heterosexual culture: marriage, family, responsibility. Yet if the love doesn't speak its name, it certainly sings its tune. The two sneak away over the years for trysts, and eventually each spouse learns the bitter truth.

Finally, the inevitable tragedy and the realization by one man of what a misspent life he's had. How he should have to his own self been true; how happiness has evaded him forever. It's hard to argue that the movie constitutes any kind of threat, or pro-gay propaganda. For one thing, there's too much authentic pain in it, it's too bloody sad. The final image of the aloneness of the survivor is heartbreaking. He was never a crier, of course, but you know inside he's sobbing. The film shows, convincingly, that love comes from the heart, not the glands, and if the heart is engaged, the body follows.

It also shows a lot of conventional heterosexual romantic themes in full bloom: the idea of the special person or "fate" bringing two kindred souls together; the idea that the basis of love has to be trust and friendship, not just lust; the idea that over the long term, a loved one grows to accept the other's foibles; and finally the idea that certain things are meant to be, and without them, life seems somehow incomplete and miswired. It's a film about hearts -- broken and otherwise. It's pure romance.


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