It is simplistic in the extreme to label or dismiss this movie as “the gay cowboy movie,” however convenient a moniker that might be. Brokeback Mountain is a love story, full of unrequited longing, pain, confusion, self-loathing, fear, and extremely manly activities. What makes the movie painful for our protagonists is exactly the reason we should all endure their pain as an audience member: homophobia. Were it not for the unreasoning hatred and fear in the hearts of straight men who feel threatened by the idea of man-on-man love, these two men (played fearlessly and expertly by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal) would have been able to have the life they deserve, which is of course forbidden to them when they met in 1963, and still to many degrees in the present. Anne Proulx’s short story and Larry McMurtry’s screenplay bring this story to life in a way you would never expect to see on the big screen. And as CNN pointed out, there is less than 60 seconds of man-making out in 130 minutes, so get over it, fellas.
I was fortunate enough to see this film in the arthouse theatre in the gay district of my big, blue-state city, surrounded by attractive, intelligent, sensitive men (and some yokels) who were free to openly weep at the moments it is called for. I have enjoyed that freedom all of my female life, but many men, moved by intense emotion on screen, feel they must hide their pain. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal’s characters have to hide their pain, hide their connection, hide their spots from the other tigers, and that makes you cry all the more.
Ennis (Ledger) has the added burden of having already found his fiancee, and of having been shown at a tender age the true, terrible price of being a homosexual. His terror and his heart war throughout the film, a bitter, beautiful conflict on his face. This is not the Heath Ledger of 10 Things I Hate About You. His performance is intense, beautiful, labored. Ennis is short of speech but long on contemplation. He’s an uneducated ranch hand from super-rural Wyoming, walking through life in the expected ways. What happens to him on Brokeback Mountain is an incredibly pivotal moment of violence which turns to tenderness. His physical and emotional responses to Jack (Gyllenhaal) are intense and powerful to watch.
Gyllenhaal seems more aware of the sleeping man inside himself. He knows who he is, he knows what he wants; without his impetus, their moments might never have happened, but he also knows what could be, if only the world were entirely different. He pays a terrible price in his confidence just as Ledger pays a terrible price in his fear. Their dynamic is perpetually a tension, not exclusively sexual or romantic, but a twanging, tautly pulled bowstring ready to send an arrow flying and change something forever, if only the tension could just break. It hurts to think about it, but it’s hypnotic to watch. Even the poster graphic brings that delicate tension to life.
Ang Lee has a magic touch when it comes to finding the universal emotional truth in a story. Perhaps it’s because he always seems to be directing so far outside of his personal experience, he can approach it in a detached and objective way, or perhaps it is because he is the most emotionally attuned man in the world.Ã‚ Either way, he knows how to make a story of pain and loss sing, and he knows how to place actors in an environment that can define them even when their words fail. Two men finding each other in a vast, mountainous wilderness should be no big deal, but conservatives would have you believe it will shake the earth off its axis. He makes their relationship epic in its reality and minuteness. He also has a knack for placing actors who are pre-burdened with certain expectations (Hugh Grant in Sense & Sensibility, Christina Ricci in The Ice Storm) into roles and bringing out deeper talents. Here he does so with the chronically fluff-cast Randy Quaid, Anne Hathaway, and Anna Faris, never mind fun-time Ledger. Michelle Williams (as Ennis’ wife) has no such burden*, and she has the richest opportunity to show the devastation wrought by so much enforced hiding of truth. There is not a dialed in or weak performance in the movie. Go see it.
*When I wrote this I did not know she had the legacy of Dawson’s Creek to live down!
MPAA Rating R-sexuality, nudity, some violence
Release date 12/16/05
Time in minutes 130
Director Ang Lee
Studio Focus Features