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A new cowboy in the new West


Among all the usual blockbusters depending for their success on the latest in technology, monsters, and publicity, the movie generating the loudest buzz this season, surprisingly, is a relatively small and decidedly unspectacular story of an extended love affair between two cowboys.

Most of the commentary surrounding Brokeback Mountain predictably focuses on the fact of homosexuality, with solemn sociological discussions of the plight of gay men in the West, forced to wander the range alone, suffering the love that dare not speak its name without even a support group and sometimes even endangered by the bigotry of their fellows. On the other hand, the usual conservative haters and crybabies, ignoring all those gay Republicans, complain that the movie once again advances the agenda of some group they call the liberal Hollywood elite, who apparently want to convert the nation to a deviant sexual orientation.

In reality, despite its apparent subversion of the myth of the West, the movie quite intelligently examines a number of the subjects and themes of major American literature as well as the most American of all the popular genres. Like such masterpieces as The Leatherstocking Tales, Moby Dick, and Huckleberry Finn, the genre includes numerous examples of moments that celebrate the familiar and sometimes ambiguous ideal of male comradeship, appearing in the several treatments of Billy the Kid and his nemesis Pat Garrett, and such famous titles as Johnny Guitar, Warlock, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

The vision of a wilderness where men follow their violent destiny beyond the influence of wives, mothers, and sweethearts suggests a juvenile, perhaps presexual fantasy of adventurous bachelorhood not all that distant from the eternal childhood of Peter Pan, which informs a great many Westerns, including BrokebackMountain.

From the beginning the movie quietly and sometimes ironically both emphasizes and undermines its tradition, showing its two cowboys, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), hiring on to guard a flock of sheep, usually a hated occupation in the Western. Initially strangers, they set up their camp in the Wyoming mountains and become friends, then quite suddenly, lovers, forming an odd and mostly interrupted relationship that lasts for many years.

After the sheep herding season ends, they part to follow their separate ways many miles apart, Ennis to marriage and ranch work, Jack to riding bulls in the rodeo, where he meets the woman who becomes his wife, Lureen (Anne Hathaway). Keeping in touch through sporadic postcards, they meet occasionally over the years, ostensibly to camp out and fish, in reality to recall and repeat their happiness on BrokebackMountain.

Despite their awareness of the stigma and the dangers of homosexuality in their part of the world, and the tensions within their respective marriages, the two somehow manage to maintain the relationship and the passion of their sexual connection. The movie actually, however, shows a great deal more of their separate lives rather than their time together, concentrating particularly on Ennis and his wife Alma (Michelle Williams), who discovers the truth of her husband's friendship with Jack and eventually divorces him.

The contrast between their domestic lives and their time together constitutes the real subject and engenders the real themes of the movie, in effect juxtaposing freedom and constriction, the stunning beauty of the mountains with the stifling bourgeois comfort of Jack's marriage and the mean little town where Ennis scrapes out a living. In keeping with its tradition, the film celebrates geography and landscape, on one hand the old West of horsemen dwarfed by the immensity of endless space, majestic mountains, and stunning vistas, and on the other, the modern West of hardscrabble ranches, subsistence jobs, honky tonk saloons, house trailers, and cramped apartments above the grocery store.

Again observing its heritage, the picture works mostly through images and silence, reflected not only in its many essentially soundless scenes, but in the exceptional restraint of its actors.

In some remarkable moments, particularly in a scene where he meets Jack Twist's parents in their bleak farmhouse, Heath Ledger shows that he can speak his heart without saying a word. He emphasizes the essential loneliness of the Western and the Westerner, not only the heartbreak of love and loss, but the elegiac quality of the form, which fittingly always somehow mourns a time forever past.

Brokeback Mountain (R), directed by Ang Lee, opens Friday, January 6, at Little Theatres, Henrietta 18, and Pittsford Cinema.