Along the Ground

Between the broken foothills of Signal, Wyoming and the dry, flat plains of northern Texas, cramped towns periodically dot the landscape, not so much erupting out of it as clutching it tight, holding steadfast to dying hopes tied up in the land. Alongside the magnificent vistas of Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005), it is possible to find the decrepitude, intolerance and claustrophobia of a civilization releasing its last breath: the film's emotional Ground Zero is the close, grungy home of Ennis del Mar (Heath Ledger) and his wife, Alma (Michelle Williams), shored up by wary glances and quiet desperation, the slate grays and dusty tans suggesting a place on the point of vanishing altogether. Though the gay romance at the heart of the film shatters the mold of the traditional Western — no men in white hats riding in to save the day, no Gary Cooper waiting around at high noon for the gauntlet to be thrown — its borderlands form the site where the genre's enduring themes inevitably clash, where individual freedom and social obligation, tenuous capitalism and Jeffersonian yeomanry, the fierce promise and final devastation of the American Dream, hit up against one another with irrevocable force. The musty, mothballed atmosphere of pained faces and mismatched clutter that Lee conjures in Ennis and Alma's tiny town may lack the grandeur of Monument Valley, but the hard-nosed ordinariness has a heft all its own. Brokeback Mountain is part of a decade-long spate of new, wide-ranging "Westerns," each exploring the notion that the West may no longer be the place recognizable from Stagecoach and Gunsmoke. But in films and television shows as divergent in tone and subject matter as 3:10 to Yuma and There Will Be Blood, Don't Come Knocking and No Country for Old Men, Deadwood, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and The Assassination of Jesse James, "The West" remains a vital idea, an organizing theme of the American self-conception, embodying hopes and disappointments clung to as fervently as the ground itself.

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