Review: ‘Brokeback Mountain’
New film by director Ang Lee could be an Oscar contender
“You know I ain’t queer,” cowboy Ennis Del Mar matter-of-factly tells Jack Twist after a night of rough-and-tumble – and quite unexpected – sex on a cold, lonely night in Wyoming. “It’s a one-shot thing, this business of ours.”
It wasn’t. Rather, it was the start of a passionate, yet tragic 20-year love affair that’s guaranteed to touch the hearts of moviegoers when the much anticipated “Brokeback Mountain” opens Dec. 16. The Ang Lee film is a powerful love story that illustrates how far we’ve come as a society over the past 40 years. Yet it also serves as a painful reminder of just how far we still have to go.
That its pair of lovers – the movie’s central characters – are men is revolutionary for a mainstream American film. But more so is the shattering of a long and cherished American icon.
Since the mid-1800s, the myth of the American cowboy has been seared into the world’s collective consciousness. These quiet, rugged, masculine men rode the frontier looking for work, lived solitary lives and rarely put roots down in any one community. Their only friend was their horse, or if they were lucky, a loyal male sidekick. And women were good for only one thing – and that generally happened only when the hard-working, harder-playing wranglers rode into town looking to blow off steam; to marry one ended their free-wheeling days.
These strong, silent men were envied the world over by others who wished to join them and by women who wanted to tame them. For several generations, the cowboy epitomized the heterosexual male.
We were fooling ourselves, of course.
Isolate a group of testosterone-driven men for long periods of time and anything can – and will – happen. Like Ennis and Jack, they can even fall in love!
The two young cowboys meet in the pre-Stonewall days of 1963 when both arrive at Brokeback Mountain looking for summer work. Ennis is the strong-but-silent type, whereas Jack is outgoing and lanky. The two say nothing until after they are hired by landowner Joe Aquirre to tend his sheep, but from the start, it’s obvious that Jack finds Ennis intriguing.
It’s a tough life on Brokeback – and lonely, too, as Jack is supposed to sleep in the mountains each night with the flock, while Ennis is to stay at the base camp. Breakfast and dinner are their only chances to socialize. Over time, their relationship grows from quiet co-workers to good friends – and their after-dinner repartee evolves into secret and forbidden overnight stays.
But when summer ends, the lovers regrettably go their separate ways. Ennis returns home and marries his girlfriend, Alma (Michelle Williams). He finds work on a ranch and fathers two daughters. But a short sex scene between Ennis and Alma reveals to whom Ennis’ heart really belongs.
Meanwhile, Jack returns to Texas and struggles as a rodeo cowboy, where he eventually meets and marries Lureen (Anne Hathaway), a rodeo queen whose daddy owns a thriving business. A son and a new sales job later, Jack seems set for life.
Except for the fact that he loves Ennis, not Lureen. So four years after their last encounter, Jack contacts his true love and they meet at Ennis’ home in Wyoming “to go fishing.” It’s an intense reunion that sets the stage for multiple “fishing trips” each year for the next two decades.
Their relationship, of course, is doomed from the start. For despite Jack’s insistence that they could divorce their wives and buy a ranch together, Ennis is frozen by a shocking lesson his father once taught him. So instead, Ennis denies himself true love and happiness, while Jack struggles to remain faithful to him.
Sad story, told well
It’s a sad story that’s all too familiar to generations of LGBT people – but one that’s exceptionally well told and gorgeously shot by director Lee. (The film is based on a 1997 short story by Annie Prouix that appeared in The New Yorker.)
Since this is a love story and not gay porn, Lee and screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana allow the relationship between Ennis and Jack to build slowly and realistically. So for the first half hour or so we watch as they become comfortable with each other, forge a friendship and, later, become reluctant lovers. It’s a deep love that develops naturally, and in order for the film to pay off, we must observe it as it happens. To approach the story any differently would harm its emotional impact.
Even the sex – what there is of it – is truthful to the men’s cowboy nature: It’s physical, it’s violent and it’s passionate. It’s definitely not pretty!
But what will totally capture the hearts of moviegoers are the exceptional performances by Lee’s cast, particularly Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as Ennis and Jack.
Like Jack – the dreamer and risk-taker of the two, and the one most at ease with his sexuality – Gyllenhaal brings to the role an honesty that never waivers. He, too, must be comfortable with his own sexual identity – otherwise it’s doubtful he’d attempt such a high profile “gay” role – and it shows through the integrity of his work.
However the most impressive performance – and the most frustrating, quite honestly – belongs to Ledger who dominates most scenes through the sheer power of his presence. His body language and facial expressions do the talking for him, and when words are required, they are succinct and in very low tones. And it’s obvious that the hand nature – and society – dealt Ennis is eating him alive. It’s a heart-wrenching performance that serves as a reminder of how destructive life can be when we’re not allowed to live it truthfully.
Ironically, the film’s greatest flaw also belongs to Ledger: The actor mumbles so indistinctly at times that I challenge everyone to figure out the movie’s final line without help. Of the nearly two-dozen people I talked with after the screening, no one understood it, and those who thought they did were wrong!)