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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



Movie memories, by Siraj Syed—Brokeback Mountain (2005): Rough terrain, smooth ride

Movie memories, by Siraj Syed—Brokeback Mountain (2005): Rough terrain, smooth ride

Friendship between the two protagonists of Brokeback Mountain turns to a homosexual relationship that survives their respective conventional marriages and fatherhoods. Director Ang Lee tackles this taboo theme, placed in the Wyoming of half a century ago, and treats it with old-world unravelling, at a gentle pace and accompanied by slow background score. The dialogue is highly accentuated and mumbled, which is good for the cowboy theme, but tests audience’s patience, which is exacerbated when you watch it on DVD. You can follow barely 10% of the spoken words. All its three Oscars—best director, best adapted screenplay and best original music score, are richly deserved.

In the spring of 1963, Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) first meet at the trailer office of Wyoming’s Farm and Ranch Employment. Both are well acquainted with a life of hard work and rough living, and both are high school dropouts. Ennis lost both parents when he was young and grew up in the care of two older siblings. At age fourteen, he received a hardship grant for a truck to drive to school, but the truck soon broke down and he went to work on a ranch. Now he is engaged to Alma Beers (Michelle Williams).

Jack and Ennis sign on to become sheep herder and camp tender, respectively, for a foreman, Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid), whose livestock of 8,000 sheep spend the summer on Brokeback Mountain. When they are together, they talk, drink whiskey, and become friends. One cold night, after much talking and drinking, Ennis decides to remain in base camp rather than trek back to the herd. It’s freezing and Jack tells him to join him in his sleeping roll inside the warm tent. In the tent, Jack reaches for Ennis’s hand and pulls it to his groin, only to be roughly turned and entered from behind by Ennis—the first time Ennis has been with a man.

During a surprise visit to the campsite, Joe Aguirre sees the men together through his binoculars. In late August, Aguirre calls the men and sheep down from the mountain and pays off Jack and Ennis. The two men say goodbye, each evasive about his plans for the next summer. Jack has a bruised jaw—Ennis had punched him the day before. They part ways as though they don’t care. Once Jack is out of sight, Ennis is sick with grief.

Ennis marries Alma and has two girls, getting work as a wrangler and on a highway crew to support his family. Four years pass. Jack sends Ennis a postcard to the post office, saying he is coming to town, and Ennis replies with his address. When Jack arrives, Ennis runs to greet him. Alma steps outside and sees them kissing in front of their apartment, then quickly goes back inside. She comes out again when the men have separated, and Ennis introduces Jack to her. The men tell each other about the children they have. Jack has married a rich Texan rodeo-rider girl, Lureen (Anne Hathaway). The men go to a motel, where they have sex all night. The next day, they reminisce about their time on Brokeback and talk about their feelings.

Screenplay by   Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana is based on an eponymous short story, Brokeback Mountain, by Annie Proulx (also writes under the names E. Annie Proulx and E.A. Proulx). Her second novel, The Shipping News (1993) was adapted as a 2001 film of the same name. McMurtry’s novels include Horseman, Pass By (1962), The Last Picture Show (1966) and Terms of Endearment (1975), all adapted into films. Diana Ossana had read Brokeback Mountain as she was a young woman when it was originally published in The New Yorker. Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana have together written Pretty Boy Floyd and Zeke and Ned. They have also published the story of Brokeback Mountain’s adaptation for the big screen.

Brokeback Mountain is about poverty, loneliness, conventional heterosexual permissiveness, homosexual targetting, religion, liquor (a lot of drinking), cigarettes (chain-smoking by several characters) automobiles (pick-up trucks and vans, mostly), sheep (herded, in many a scene) and horses (with riders, also in rodeo shows)—and among these, the awakening and gripping of same-sex desire, among two co-workers on a lonely mountain. Of particular interest is the flashback of Ennis, in which he recalls the mutilated body of a homosexual rancher who was found out, and his constant fear that people might find out and punish him in the same ghastly way.

Ang Lee has the film firmly under control. He chooses a laid back narrative to go with the emptiness in the lives of his protagonists, though there are two or three scenes of violence. In terms of nudity, he prefers to go easy, and there are only fleeting moments of skin-show. One aspect that must be lauded is his delineation of Ennis’s part, underplayed in both, looks and movement, as well as tight-lipped diction. Considerable screen space is allotted to the landscape and shepherding, which slows down the pace. Te milieu is tough, the ride silky smooth. The tragic ending could have been melodramatic, but you have to go with the flow and the background score (Gustavo Santaolalla) to realise that the end had to be the way it is.

Heath Ledger (died in 2008, aged 28, won the Academy Award for Best Supporting actor in The Dark Knight) is a method actor’s delight. The stiff neck, the angled looks, the forced talk and the rare outbursts are a study portrait. Jake Gyllenhaal (October Sky, The Day After Tomorrow, and subsequently Nightcrawler, Southpaw) as the more confident, extroverted, brash member of the duo is a good foil. Both age gracefully across the 20-year span of the story. Randy Qaid has a small part, and fits the bill perfectly. Michelle Williams as the passionate housewife is well cast, as is Anne Hathaway (The Princess Diaries 1 and 2, Havoc; subsequently The Devil Wears Prada, The Dark Knight Rises, Les Misérables) , as the kittyish rider, oozes sensuality.

Brokeback Mountain does deserve the plaudits it won, including the three Oscars. It did not win Best Picture, and I can see why, as detailed above. But it’s a must watch, nonetheless.

Rating: *** ½

(Reviewed from my DVD copy). 



About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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