Believe the hype — this movie is as good as you’ve heard. It may even be better. Brokeback Mountain is a sweeping tale of stymied love spanning twenty years, directed by the master of uncomfortable, unfulfilled love stories (The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Ang Lee. Lee knows how to wrangle pain from his actors, and here he is in his element with two characters who have spent their lives tamping down the feelings that could get them killed.
Yes, if you have to label everything and tie up the characters and story into neat little packages, then okay: Brokeback Mountain is about gay cowboys (but before you ask, alas, no pudding). But writing this film off with a few controversial labels doesn’t do it justice. If nothing else, one hopes that this movie can help to shed light on the notion that labels and stereotypes are often inadequate when it comes to sexuality. Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist are men (fully realized in tremendous, career-making performances by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal) who fall in love, but does it make them gay? Are we defined by labels, or by the actions in our lives?
Part of the controversy surrounding this film lies in the perception that the movie is encouraging homosexual men to marry and live out “traditional” lives with a wife and children, the nuclear family American dream. There seems to be some feeling that this is a particularly unhealthy idea to propagate now when the delicate issue of gay rights is being debated across the country. What these people don’t seem to realize is that this film doesn’t advocate anything except the idea that being true to one’s self is difficult in any time and any place – and everyone struggles with that, homo- or heterosexual, male or female, rich or poor. For Ennis and Jack, their inability (due to upbringing, culture, and society) to live out the lives they might have otherwise chosen is their downfall. There’s nothing in the film that encourages gay men to act “straight.”
Nor is the film some sort of flamboyant cavalcade of homosexuality that some would like you to think. It’s difficult for me to refer to Ennis and Jack with the accepted labels of sexuality because sexuality is a rich facet of our selves, multi-layered and deep. It is not a simple question for many, and that struggle is one of the story’s strengths. Is Brokeback Mountain really about “gay cowboys?”
In the film, there are clues that for Jack, the potential at least is present from the beginning. When he first sees Ennis, they are just two cowboys waiting outside a trailer and hoping to leave with a job. Ennis is stoic, the perfect strong, silent type… but Jack sees something in the other man’s lanky form that calls to him, and he shifts restlessly against his truck, perfecting a masculine lean… and even then, his vulnerability, his need for acceptance and love is so clear that it’s heartbreaking. From that moment, silent and long, marked by Jack peeking at Ennis from under the brim of his hat, we can see their entire relationship laid out before them, down to its inevitable tragic end. Gyllenhaal really shines here in and in the scenes on the mountain, when the two are looking after a large flock of sheep. There is one scene in particular, when Ennis strips down to wash and Jack must… not… look… He goes on peeling potatoes for supper, but it is apparently from the tension in his jaw and his forcefully blank expression that the attraction that sparked at their first meeting has, for him, grown into a hungry flame.
But Heath Ledger’s mumbling Ennis is more difficult to define. At the beginning of that fateful summer in 1963, he is engaged and is hoping to save up a little extra cash for his fall wedding. He’s the real cowboy, all dusty workmanship next to the flashy, bull-riding Jack Twist. Whereas Jack bitches about the sheep, the rules, the job, and anything that crops up, Ennis accepts his place and does what is expected (a quality that will shape his life). When the fateful moment comes, on a cold night that brings the two men together in a tent against the chill outside, Ennis reacts to Jack’s first sexual overture with violence, slapping him away. When he gives in, a heartbeat later, there is an air of prison sex about the scene. These men are stuck on a mountaintop for months with no release. They might as well be in prison. And Ennis seems to give it no more thought than that. They discuss it later, once:
Ennis: This is a one-shot thing we got going on here.
Jack: Nobody’s business but ours.
Ennis: You know I ain’t queer.
Jack: Me neither.
And they move on, marrying… Jack because it’s convenient (or inconvenient; there is some question here that his marriage is of the shotgun variety) and Ennis because that’s what men do. And for Ennis, that marriage at first seems happy. After his initial violent and ill reaction to the end of that summer (he collapses in the shadow of a building, dry-heaving and holding back tears), life is okay. He works hard, but that’s what men do. His wife Alma (played by Ledger’s real life love Michelle Williams) has a couple of kids. And they share tender moments among the pain of being poor and saddled with children. The relationship is normal, if somewhat perfunctory, but so are many marriages. If not for the reappearance of Jack, Ennis might have lived out his life just like that.
There is one really excellent scene during Ennis and Alma’s short-lived marriage that seems slightly changed from the story but still amazingly effective. They are in bed, and Alma is trying to convince Ennis that they should move “into town.” The conversation doesn’t get very far; as with many young couples with children, they get distracted by the excitement of a few moments alone and the talk fades into sex. In the story, Ennis is careful to put his wife’s needs before his own and it is mentioned that she doesn’t enjoy the actual act of intercourse. In the film, it seems more that they are both enjoying the moment – loving one another and sinking into the physicality of simply being together – and then suddenly, Ennis turns Alma over and enters her from behind. It is the same in the story, but here, translated to a visual medium, it is a very telling moment. Ennis, no matter how far down he keeps his feelings, wants to love and feel love, and in this idyllic moment with his wife, he tries to recreate the only real happiness he has ever known – with Jack – by taking her the same way. It is a breathless moment, and like so many of the film’s best scenes, extraordinarily subtle.
Is Brokeback Mountain about gay cowboys? Yes and no. But by labeling the characters, and the film, the fact that it is a painful, momentous, beautiful love story is ignored. It’s an epic Western romance. Call it that and let it go.
But it’s also a story about freedom, the importance of the freedom to let go and be yourself. Jack and Ennis don’t have that freedom, no matter how much Jack wants it. Once they are reunited, after four years, a sinister memory casts a pall over any hope that this romance would end happily. As a child, his father took Ennis and his brother to see the tattered corpse of a rancher who lived alone with another man. Among other things, “they” had taken a tire iron to the man… and that image, and the thought of the tire iron, would take on almost mythic proportions for Ennis throughout his life. Except for one impassioned semi-public moment, Ennis keeps his feelings for Jack under tight control and never entertains the idea of giving it all up to run away with his lover, not even when it means he might lose him. He never considers letting go — because Ennis, the realist, knows what happens to the men who let go.
Annie Proulx’s terse short story was about an intense love between two men who were ill-equipped to deal with any feelings at all. And the film, adapted by Larry McMurtry and writing partner Diana Ossana, captures the story more accurately than most adaptations. The changes are minimal, limited to a little necessary expansion of minor characters and a lengthening of the buildup between Ennis and Jack. Most of the original dialogue is captured faithfully – often word for word. But the real achievement here, in my view, is that the very landscape itself seems almost a character in the film – which is apt, as their physical origin acts as strongly on Jack and Ennis as any other factor in their lives.
Ang Lee and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto of Amores Perros capture the dust of the colorless town where Ennis is trapped with his wife Alma in such a way that we feel trapped right there with them. Much has been made of the shots of the mountains and the Wyoming sky, shots that evoke the postcards Jack and Ennis use to plan their trysts, but for me the most stunningly effective translation of the story is in that town. Maybe it’s because I spent scattered years of my childhood in such places, where being “working class” really meant poor, but I find it easy to sink into the sameness of the days and can understand how momentous it is when, four years after their summer together, Ennis gets the first postcard from Jack. By then, something different, anything different, is huge.
I can’t say enough about the performances in this film. Everyone is fantastic, from the two leads and their wives down to the supporting roles – most notable here is Randy Quaid as the rancher whose sheep bring Jack and Ennis together in the first place. Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway are excellent as the wives, though Anne Hathaway (of The Princess Diaries) doesn’t age physically as well as the other characters in the film (hardly her fault). I have a feeling she won’t be doing any more Disney films after her scene here stripping and seducing Jack in the backseat of her car. Williams has one of the movie’s best – and most painful – moments when she steps to the door, eager to see the friend that had her reserved husband all but bouncing on his toes with excitement, and finds them kissing with a passion she has never shared with Ennis.
But the movie belongs to the men, and ultimately to Heath Ledger, though Jake Gyllenhaal is truly great as Jack Twist. It takes some time to accept Gyllenhaal’s voice in this role; I found it a little jarring at first, the earnest, youthful quality in his voice comes through a little too strongly in the opening scenes, but he relaxes into the role and that fades.
But Heath Ledger. Oh, Heath! What have you been doing all this time? Ang Lee, on Charlie Rose a few nights ago, mentioned Ledger’s role in Monster’s Ball as a factor in his casting here, and it’s unsurprising – he’s had some good performances in some mediocre movies, and that is the only opportunity he’s really had to shine in a strong and deeply emotional role. Ledger carries this film, easily and effortlessly. This is no insult to the other performances – there are no false chords in this romantic symphony – but in the end, it is Ennis you will remember, Ennis clutching the shirts he and Jack wore in 1963, shirts that Jack kept for twenty years, and Ledger pours forth decades of pain and struggle in a brief moment as he clutches those shirts.
Lee himself has had nothing but praise for Ledger in the role:
I feel very fortunate to have Heath in the movie. He’s a natural. He has great coordination, he’s very dedicated, and he does his preparation. He meticulously aims towards a certain target and firmly believes in what he’s doing… He and I talked about how Ennis doesn’t speak much. Deep inside, he has a big fear from a childhood traumatic experience, and from his awakening to his own sexuality, which is not allowed to be expressed in the West. Ennis has to cover that up with his attitude and, sometimes, violence. He can get very violent, because of how scared he is. So he’s a scared kid inside, playing a Western kind of cool. Heath not only had to carry his own character and the whole character of the West, but carry the movie – and he underplayed powerfully.
But don’t take it from the director – go see it for yourself. See Brokeback Mountain not for the controversy, or for any statements about society (there aren’t any), or even for the performances (though it’d be worth it). See it because so few modern films tackle the notion that love is work, and that it’s usually not a happy-fun-time where everything is rainbows and lollipops in a meadow. Love is violent and intense, it’s painful and more than anything, it’s hard, but even then it’s beautiful. It’s wonderful. It’s what so many of us live for. And Brokeback Mountain is about the kind of love that lasts forever – it’s a force of nature.
Brokeback Mountain opens today in selected cities, but will not hit wide release (to cities like my native Little Rock) until an as yet undetermined date in January.
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