The latest film from director Ang Lee - "the gay western," as it's been more or less known since pre-production began - turns out to be something else: neither a queer film in the strict sense, nor a straight (no pun intended) genre piece. Rather, a nuanced and complex study of desire, loneliness and the ambiguities swirling beneath the accepted codes of rural life. And as such, one of the finest movies of the year.
In Wyoming, two young cowboys, Jack (Gyllenhaal) and Ennis (Ledger), are thrown together, employed by rancher Joe Aguirre (Quaid) to run his large herd of sheep on Brokeback Mountain. But it's 1963, and the West is changing, and the two young men are beset by intimations that the world to which they've pledged allegiance is slipping away. They're each entranced, in their own way, by the myth of the Old West, and by its archetypes (their first sequence together, in which they smoke, brood and pose outside a dusty roadside office - all without so much as a single word of dialogue - is little short of masterful). They're also very different characters: Jack, lean, easygoing, loquacious; Ennis clenched, inarticulate, looking at times as though his inchoate emotions might spill over into violence - though directed against himself or another, who can say?
Yet gradually a bond develops, and one night, ostensibly fuelled by whisky and boredom, their relationship turns sexual. Their mutual attraction, though, remains mysterious to themselves, at first something to be denied. ("You know I ain't queer," declares Ennis after their first night together; "Me neither," avows Jack.) Before long, they choose simply to carry on, barely speaking of what it is that has transformed them; such is the intensity of their desire, and so urgent is the need for secrecy, that neither seems able to fully process their feelings, much less discuss them. It's less dishonesty than a simple failure of nerve - one which only makes their eventual fates, all the more piercingly sad.
Still, those first, urgent encounters leave a mark - tranforming their lives, and disfiguring the subsequent relationships they pursue with women. "That ol' Brokeback got us good," sighs Jack, years later.
Awarded the Gold Lion at the Venice Film Festival (the second film rejected by Cannes, in successive years, to do so), it arrives at an interesting time for the Western. After a lengthy heyday at both ends of the bill, from John Ford and Anthony Mann headliners, to Budd Boetticher oaters, the genre entered its seventh decade back in the 1970s and, like many old men, grew ruminative, stubborn and occasionally downright ornery. The sad, savage bloodbaths of Peckinpah were one manifestation of this; the dusty parables of Sergio Leone, across the Atlantic, were another. Other genres continued to thrive: the gangster drama, the SF extravaganza. The Western declined. Nowadays, examples are far less common, and tend to arrive with an air of novelty, like a rodeo clown in a shopping mall - no matter whether they be classical in tone (Kevin Costner's beautiful, gravely underrated Open Range) or meta-textual and perverse (Thomas Vinterberg's appalling Dear Wendy). Like it or not, a western is an event now, meant to signify some notion of modern-day America's attitude to its heartlands, its history, or both.
This one does: one of the few films to overtly interrogate (and subvert) the codes of masculine behaviour and society in the rural West. It's always been there, of course - look again at the stunningly homoerotic gunplay between Montgomery Clift and John Ireland in Hawks' Red River. Or Claude Atkins' distinctly epicine gang of "toughs" in Comanche Station. But these were implied, subtextual: symptomatic of a society that could not, at that time, acknowledge queer behaviour in any terms but the allusive or comic. The only wonder, really, is that it has taken so long.
Credit is due here, and it must be evenly dispensed - not only to the leads (though both are excellent - and Ledger, in particular, a revelation), but also to screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, whose adaptation of Annie Proulx's short story, orginally published in the New Yorker, retains its sense of baffled longing and erotic mystery. Lee, meanwhile, offers another installment in what must be one of the most versatile and consistently interesting careers around. He's no stylist, yet his unfussy, elegant direction is as confident, as apparently effortless, as any in contemporary cinema. And while the diversity of his settings (Nixon-era Connecticut, Regency England, Marvel-comics Americana), might frustrate would-be auteurists, his films are unified by a keen intelligence, an acute eye and a genuine fascination with different cultural values - all qualities shared by his collaborator, the producer (and Lee's frequent screenwriter) James Schamus. Together, they seem intent on singlehandedly restoring the term "journeyman director" - in recent decades, the domain of mere hacks - to the craftsman-like status it enjoyed in the Golden Age of Michael Curtiz and Mitchell Leisen.
Not a gay movie, then. And not a genre movie. It's something else, wiser and more subtle, messy and unresolved in the way of real life, alert to the suddenness of desire - how it might surprise you, leave you breathless, lay you out cold - yet might not, finally, fatally, have the power to change you. A love story.
Rating: 5 / 10
DIRECTED BY Ang Lee<br>STARRING Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Randy Quaid<br>Opens December 30, Cert 15, 134 mins