Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Go ahead and work the snickers out of your system. Brokeback Mountain has been dubbed “that gay cowboy movie,” and been condemned by certain fundamentalist Christian organizations as “a very dangerous and insidious message to America.” But what message is Ang Lee’s film even putting out there? It seems to me that Brokeback Mountain is putting a human face on a slur, making homosexuals look like you or me. For some that prospect may be terrifying. The movie is playing well on the blue-state coasts, expectedly, but it’s also surprisingly playing well in America’s heartland. It seems that people are lining up all over to see a movie about two gay cowboys in love. And perhaps the more people that witness Brokeback Mountain, the harder it will be to listen to those so-called family advocacy groups with their sterling Christian morals. Maybe people will really see what’s behind many of the words of outcry – hate and ignorance (I am in no way insinuating that disliking the flick means you are homophobic). Despite all this political talk, Brokeback Mountain is by no means a political movie. It’s a love story, above all, and it’s a doozy.
In the summer of 1963, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) is a quiet man looking for work in rustic Wyoming. He finds a job as a sheep herder working atop the canyons and mountains of Brokeback. Working alongside Ennis is Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), a charismatic rodeo rider. The weeks are long and Ennis and Jack are all the company they have, excluding the hundreds of sheep they tend. Eventually, the more taciturn Ennis finally opens up and bonds with his herding partner. “That’s more words than you’ve spoken in two weeks,” Jack says. “Hell,” Ennis adds, “That’s the most I’ve spoken in a year.” The rules have been laid out: every night one man sleeps in a tent campsite, the other sleeps next to the sheep to guard them. Well one night Ennis has had too much whisky and cannot make it back to the sheep. Jack invites him to sleep in the tent instead of freezing outside. Then something surprising takes place – both men have an alcohol-fueled bout of rough sex. The next morning both men stress they “ain’t queer,” but they have a hard time fighting their feelings inside. Ennis warns that, “If this thing, it grabs hold of us again… at the wrong place… at the wrong time… and we’re dead.” He recounts a childhood memory where his father showed him the corpse of an older homosexual man, brutally beaten and mutilated. For them, their love must stay on Brokeback Mountain.
The men part ways. Ennis marries Alma (Michelle Williams), a quiet woman after his own heart, and fathers two daughters. In Texas, Jack meets fellow rodeo rider Lureen (Anne Hathaway) and gets involved in a relationship with her, fathering a son of his own. But Jack still thinks of his Brokeback pal and sends him a postcard. Ennis nearly lights up at the returned sight of Jack and the two passionately embrace. He tells Alma that Jack is an old “fishing buddy” and they sneak away every few months for a fishing getaway. Really the men are returning to the countryside to rekindle the love that they haven’t left behind. But can they keep their love a secret, and should they even have to?
I wonder if Lee would ever have directed this if 2003’s Hulk didn’t bomb so badly. Lucky for us, he’s taken the Brokeback helm and infuses lots of emotion into the story. The Wyoming countryside (actually Canada, but it’s all close enough) is gorgeous, and the film has a great earthy feel. Best of all, Lee allows his love story to breathe and go at its own pace, never cutting corners or rushing an emotion. There’s a lovely, lilting feel to the film, and Lee’s guided hand allows the story to play out to its grand promise. Based on Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Proulx’s 11-page short story, screenwriters Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove, The Last Picture Show) have given incredible depth and subtext to the tale. McMurtry, in particular, has great knowledge of the West and the cowboy lifestyle, and the screenplay gives you an idea of small-town Western life. There are a few moments at bars, social scenes, stores, but they brilliantly give you every detail you’d need to know about this way of life. I even loved how the people of Wyoming wore fashions that were five years removed from their height of popularity, which is exactly how fashion moves around to the smaller parts of America. Ossana and McMurtry are also commended for presenting their characters as people first and never as agenda bulletins. All three lend a level of authenticity that makes the story feel organic and never trite.
In films about forbidden desire and heartbreak, the acting is the cornerstone for how powerful the tale resonates. The acting in Brokeback Mountain is phenomenal. Ledger is the breakout star and the majority of the film’s focus. He gives the performance of his life. Ledger is outstanding as the reserved, taciturn Ennis, brought to believe that queers were something sub-human and now he wrestles with his own identity. He may be a restrained man of few words but you see every emotion bubble under the surface, every conflict played out in his eyes. Ledger’s few violent or emotional outbursts are startling because they show an uncontrollable feeling, one even he can’t withhold 24/7.
Gyllenhaal has the showier role but masterfully displays the frustration of forbidden love. He’s willing to sacrifice everything for Ennis, and the fact that Ennis won’t do likewise tears him apart. Isn’t love enough, he wonders. There’s a moment in the film that so sharply displays Jack and Gyllenhaal as an actor. It involves two different shots in a moving truck. The first is Jack headed to Ennis’ ranch, singing, bouncing, and with a wall-to-wall smile. The second is Jack driving away from the ranch unfulfilled, sullen, broken, and seemingly unable to cry another tear. It’s two small moments and they sum up Jack and Gyllenhaal perfectly. The only thing unsettling about Gyllenhaal’s performance is his late 70s porn star ‘stach. With his tremendous work in Jarhead and now Brokeback Mountian, Gyllenhaal is in class all his own (he’s got the dreamiest doe-eyes in Hollywood).
The ladies of Brokeback Mountain have less screen time to play with but they each deliver fine performances. Williams is a silent, put-upon mother and is shattered when she discovers her husband’s secret love. She just crumbles. She’s never the same and Williams showcases her character’s distress and mounting bitterness. One of the film’s highpoints is her confrontation with Ennis, many years later, finally sharing all that she knows. Me thinks an Oscar nod is headed in her post-Dawson’s Creek future. Hathaway plays quite an opposite character. She begins as a wild, headstrong cowgirl with a healthy sexual appetite, something perhaps Jack sees as a reflection of his self. Then their love dies at some point and she pours herself into work, but Hathaway illuminates every step along the way. Her small smile during a scene where Jack finally browbeats her obnoxious father is terrific.
This is an elegiac, engrossing love story. Brokeback Mountain is not necessarily a “gay thing,” more so it’s a story about forbidden love and about the consequences of moving forward without ever letting go. That sounds universal, right? Nothing “gay” about that. Brokeback Mountain explores the force of love and shows how uncontrollable and unpredictable it is. Jack and Ennis are just as surprised by their feelings and their rough night of passion as the audience, but the happiness they share is hard to argue.
Because of the film’s gentle pace, and Lee’s loose control, we really immerse ourselves in their relationship as they frit away the hours looking after sheep. There was a woman in my theater (I won’t name names, partly because I don’t know hers) who felt that Brokeback Mountain was far too slow and could have been put to better use by cutting 2 hours out. The film’s placid pace is integral to the story’s success; you need to see how expansive that countryside is to feel alone, you need to have the many small conversations to draw out a closer camaraderie, you need the added time to open up to these men, and then once you have –BAM! — they turn their worlds upside down. This buildup is necessary for our connection to the characters but it’s also essential so we can understand what happens. Yes, the film portrays love as it truly is: an all-encompassing emotion that can be as maddening as it is passionate. But Brokeback Mountain doesn’t dare introduce a gay romance, something so dangerous in this land, all lickity-split. It’s supposed to be a surprise to these men, grown up with John Wayne movies and strong, silent role models. The movie enjoyably takes its time to seduce an audience with its tale before choking out every last tear in the end.
The tragedy of Lee’s film is that these men have each found the love of their life but, because of society’s prejudices, are not allowed to act. As a result, each man puts on a different face and pretends they’re a happy heterosexual Western buck for the public, but each is being eaten away inside. Ennis drinks a lot and is full of self-loathing. Jack is less publicly reserved about his feelings and finds momentary comfort with other warm bodies, mostly through silent nods with other closeted gay men. I’m reminded of a line in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia: “I have a lot of love to give; I just don’t know where to put it.” Ennis and Jack cannot quit each other but they also tragically can never fully commit to one another, at least without any threat of ostracism or death. That’s the power of Brokeback, that it shows you these simple men, shows you their love, and then won’t let that happy ending ever manifest that we yearn for. When we reach our somber, haunting conclusion there weren’t many dry eyes in the theater, mine included. Brokeback Mountain is a love story that won’t let itself be happy, and that’s what provides all the kicks to the gut and lumps in your throat.
I think some of the more hostile criticism of Brokeback Mountain is because of how normal Jack and Ennis are presented. Neither is a swishy stereotype, neither is any less of a man, and that notion probably terrifies the homophobes: “Well, they look normal, and if they get gay then maybe I will too!” That’s a shame really, because those ignorant few will miss out on a powerful, sweeping, complex, aching love story with fantastic acting. Ledger and Gyllenhaal will make you feel every moment of joy, every moment of pain, and every lingering conflict on what makes them whom they are. Lee stressed that he wanted to show the world a love story where you really felt that love was an uncontrollable force. His heartfelt, touching film is a revolution for being a normal love story, albeit with two classic Marlboro men. There is no propaganda, no gay agenda, but perhaps the film will open people’s eyes and strip away any narrow definitions we have toward the ownership of love. Brokeback Mountain set out to merely tell a good story, not change the world. It’s accomplished the first part and maybe, just maybe, it’ll spark discussion, debate, and lasting memories to lay groundwork for the second.
Posted on January 1, 2006, in 2005 Movies and tagged ang lee, anne hathaway, book, doomed romance, drama, gay, heath ledger, jake gyllenhaal, michelle williams, oscars, period film, western. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.