Director: Ang Lee
Screenplay: Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana; based on Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx
Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto; Editing: Geraldine Peroni & Dylan Tichenor
Production Design: Judy Becker; Set Decoration: Patricia Cuccia & Catherine Davis; Costumes: Marit Allen; Score: Gustavo Santaolalla
Stars: Heath Ledger (Ennis Del Mar), Jake Gyllenhaal (Jack Twist), Anne Hathaway (Lureen Newsome), Michelle Williams (Alma), Randy Quaid (Joe Aguirrre), Linda Cardellini (Cassie), Kate Mara (Alma Jr., age 19), Roberta Maxwell (Jack’s Mother), Graham Beckel (L.D. Newsome)
With its topicality, self-congratulatory ballsiness and down home setting, Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee’s plaintive ode to repressed passions and frustrated longings, has officially placed the filmmaker in Hollywood’s pantheon of great directors (he picked up an Oscar for it), and that’s apt. For this movie presents a complete crystallization of the dominant theme woven throughout his entire body of work, that of romance thwarted and love aborted by people’s unwillingness or inability to express their true feelings. The story concerns the decades long secret affair between Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), two cowboys who are unable to reconcile their love for one another. Brokeback Mountain is just as pained and tinged with angst as everything that’s gone before it.
In Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, the Emma Thompson scripted version of 1995, Alan Rickman played the part of lovelorn romantic, unable to give full voice to his feelings for Kate Winslet, the sensibility of the title, who wore her heart on her sleeve. To compound the issue, Emma Thompson’s pragmatic sense and Hugh Grant came to their love relatively late in life, because he was a pastor married to the church and she was too proud and practical to expose her feelings for a man who couldn’t respond in kind. Ang’s atypical action adventure Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon likewise harbored at its core the slow burn of love unspoken, this time between the aging martial artists played by Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun-Fat, two people whose lifelong commitment to an arbitrary code of honor had eaten away at their personal happiness. Only in their golden years do they find the courage to live their lives as they should have been lived.
With The Ice Storm, which is I think Lee’s masterpiece, the emotional frigidness has become a literal chill settling like an early frost over upwardly mobile 1970’s suburbia. No one can express themselves here. Even family members speak to one another across great gulfs of alienation and loneliness. The only way people can still connect during the sexual revolution is physically, through fleeting, meaningless one night stands that leave participants feeling emptier than before. The Ice Storm was a eulogy not just to the death of American innocence, but also to the attendant disintegration of the nuclear family. Brokeback Mountain also longs for a past that can never be recaptured, and though it doesn’t quite become a lament for America’s lost innocence, its sweep and passion suggests it may have sought to be.
I’ve cited all these earlier examples of Ang Lee’s work because I don’t find Brokeback Mountain as great a departure for him as superficial surface appearances would tend to indicate. Forget the western setting, hardly beyond his range after the lugubrious Ride the Devil, and the risqué gay romance, which was tackled by him previously in The Wedding Banquet. The issue that really lies at the heart of this movie, and of all Lee’s work, is the inability of human beings to express their needs and desire for one other, to render themselves emotionally naked and vulnerable.
People’s failure to put their feelings into words is something that speaks deeply to him, and I think likely, that’s a cultural thing. The Merchant Ivory production The Remains of the Day, about a butler and maid who are never quite able to verbalize their love, was adapted from a novel by another Asian artist, author Kazuo Ishiguro, and centered around much the same theme. The stress placed on family, propriety, and tradition in formal Asian culture prohibits displays that might bring dishonor on one’s revered ancestors. Historically, suffering in silence has been considered a virtue, public exhibitions of private emotions frowned upon.
Over and again Ang Lee has proven this same tendency, the inclination to effect a stiff upper lip, exists in a plethora of societies, times, cultures besides his own, showing such conduct to be universal. Perhaps as an outsider, peeping through the window to the West, he sees things those of us who were brought up a certain way simply miss, or accept as natural, assuming that’s just the way it is, how things are, always have been, and should be. We get in the habit of going about our routines by rote.
Filtered through Ang’s alien eyes, customs we’ve become inured to over time, and take for granted, become slightly warped and exaggerated when reenacted under fishbowl scrutiny. Some of his lampoons are ham handed and fall flat, such as when Cassie, a flirty waitress tricked out like Daisy Duke, tries to get Ennis to loosen up by cajoling him onto the dance floor, only to watch him labor through a few embarrassingly stiff gyrations before the scene is thankfully cut short. I think the point here was to emphasize Ennis’ inhibitions by referencing the old adage that tough guys don’t dance, but it gets lost in the awkwardness of the moment. Why front? Why pretend? Why go through with a meaningless marriage ceremony after discovering the one great love of your life with another man? Why invite that man, who you’ve just seen your stalwart husband locked in a passionate embrace with, to come in for a cup of coffee, or try to assert your authority as man of the house over a wife who no longer sees you as a man? Would you be able to look the lover, with whom you’d fumbled through a clumsy, drunken sexual encounter with the night before, in the eyes, much less promise to have supper waiting for him like a dutiful housewife? Customs succeed in concealing. People perform them not out of propriety, but because carrying on with meaningless customs gives people time, time to evade, to bury their real feelings, forestalling the necessity of giving voice to them.
For Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain, there’s never enough time. This man who believes “if you can’t fix it you got to stand it,” spends a lifetime hemming and hawing, putting off dealing with what’s really eating at him, because he doesn’t know how to fix a feeling he can’t even understand. He’s been stricken, but there’s no cure for what’s ailing him. He chucks his one chance for happiness in order to do what’s expected, marry and settle down, digging a hole for himself that gets deeper every year that passes him by. Believing domesticity will cure him of his proclivities and stave off further temptation, he permanently puts off owning up to seemingly improper feelings that are, eventually, no longer there to hide. Inexorable time leaves nothing of a burning passion which was once voracious, too drivingly insistent to be denied, except harmless glowing embers. Everything becomes respectable in the end, and what’s respectable becomes custom.
It was clever of regionalist author Annie Proulx, whose short story was originally published in that most urbane of magazines, The New Yorker, to set Brokeback Mountain in the Midwest. There, the endlessly rolling prairie can function as tragic counterpoint in a plot about being fenced off from life’s possibilities, about denying oneself the liberty and freedom America has always embodied. In addition, few other regions of the country place such vital importance on maintaining a veneer of rugged masculinity. Nothing too terribly queer could ever happen in the country and western world of cowboys. It’s a safer platform from which to preach to mainstream moviegoers.
Brokeback Mountain may be an anomaly: a straight guy’s gay movie. Apart from Rufus Wainwright, whose slow dirge, The Maker Makes, is tacked over the closing credits (after Willie Nelson’s He Was a Friend of Mine), which we all know no one ever sticks around to read, I know of no self-acknowledged homosexual talent connected with this movie’s conception or execution, and to my mind, that makes it the modern day equivalent of an old-fashioned minstrel show. Perhaps straight moviemakers find it more comfortable using straight actors when asking straight audiences to question what it means to be gay in this particular society, but I don’t think that paves the way for anything like realistic or insightful interpretation. Before the movie’s release, commentators seemed incapable of moving past the premise of Brokeback Mountain, dubbing it “the gay cowboy movie.” To traditionalists, the phrase seemed like an oxymoron. The two words didn’t even belong in the same sentence. To those in the know, it wasn’t that the concept seemed paradoxical, as much as self-parodying. Though you’d never guess it from this movie, cowboys, along with bikers, cops, and sailors are, as The Village People proved several decades ago, a fetish central to gay culture – an unrealistic ideal of machismo. Consciously or not, cowboys had been being homoeroticized for years. Making them overtly gay at this late date just seemed like overkill.
Since Brokeback’s release, the jokes have continued apace, but nobody feels much inclined to laugh at the movie itself. Ang Lee approaches his motif far too seriously for that, pounding ‘the cowboy way’ into a metaphor for a certain kind of emotional hardness, a stoic reserve (“Cowboy up,” boys are instructed when being taught not to express their pain). The cowboy is the quintessential embodiment of the U.S. male, and Western history fundamental to America’s national mythology. By evoking such iconography, Brokeback Mountain is reassessing the nature of the country itself. Focusing on distinctive national pastimes (country music, football, rodeos, drive-ins, square dancing), vehicles (pickup trucks, horse trailers, tractors), residences (trailer parks, ranches), terrain (Wyoming and Texas), and holidays (Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July), all while working in one of our few uniquely native art forms, the Western, Brokeback Mountain becomes a devastating dissection of the worm rotting the core of America’s apple pie, as only an objective foreigner could analyze it.
In her acceptance speech at the Independent Spirit Awards, co-producer and screenwriter Diana Ossana claimed that independence was what this movie is really about, that and sheep, by which I assume she meant to imply blind conformity. Her point was that the rigid, unyielding Western mentality, in which men must be men or they’re dead, forces people like Ennis into closets, self-imposed prisons from which they’re unable to express themselves freely, to do or say as they’d like.
In a land founded on the very notion of independence, standards of conformity like this have been allowed to become almost fascistic in their oppressiveness. Even at the country’s most basic, grass roots level, people who don’t bend to the rules of society, like Jack Twist, are weeded out. Brokeback Mountain looms large on the landscape, casting its misshapen shadow over the surrounding plain like the malignant outgrowth of America’s own Puritanical past. It’s no simple coincidence that this proves the only place Ennis and Jack, the film’s lovelorn romantic leads, can rise above the legacy of bigotry and persecution which so blights their lives down in the valleys.
In this supposed land of the free, Brokeback Mountain is the one sanctuary where they truly can be. In Proulx’s short story it was the one place the men never revisited. It was sacrosanct, too full of haunting memories and frustrated, unrealized dreams. In the movie, it’s the only place they can go. This fractured, jagged range becomes the living embodiment of their pained romance (for Ennis, it’s a metaphor for his homosexuality, the crippling physical infirmity he can never heal). Mountains are also a Freudian phallic symbol, which further explains the men’s fixation on Brokeback.
A beacon rising from the flat plain, it keeps calling them back like a siren song. No mountain has assumed such pseudo-mystical significance in a movie in quite some time (certainly Anthony Minghella’s recent Cold Mountain didn’t approximate it, though the conception of Heath Ledger’s Ennis bears comparison to Jude Law’s tight-lipped Inman in that film). One would have to reach all the way back to the 70’s to draw an appropriate analogy, with the way Wyoming’s Devil’s Tower was pressed into service for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or the titular peak in Picnic at Hanging Rock. The latter film was set in Australia, Ledger’s birthplace, and a land as defined and dominated by its imposing landscape as the American West.
Ennis and Jack get on in years, but the scenic locales they revisit time and again, vainly seeking to recapture the faded glory of their one, seemingly perfect lost summer, never change. They’re eternal and impermeable. On this towering mountain under the wide open sky, the couple’s future still seems limitless, regardless of how much older they’ve grown, as promising as the first time they met back in ‘63, when Camelot still reigned over an idealistic America and anything seemed possible, even staying together forever. It’s why Jack must travel to Wyoming, rather than Ennis coming out to visit him in Texas, as his wife, Lureen, suggests, and why postcards of Brokeback are exchanged between them whenever arranging their rendezvous. This mountain has such inherent grandeur that it lends a larger than life swell to the movie’s emotions. Its vistas impart awesome power and durability to the men’s elusive, insubstantial romance. The breathtaking visuals sweep us away on the wings of their love. The sumptuous cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto (Frida, 21 Grams) makes us fall in love with the locale as deeply as they do, makes us fall in love with the locale the way John Ford did when he shot in Monument Valley. Though this distinctly American odyssey was actually photographed in Alberta, Canada, Ennis and Jack are riding the high country in that mythic, manufactured West of Hollywood’s own imagining.
Here, on this mountain that reaches into the clouds, rising above the sordid, provincial, and commonplace, the inappropriate relationship that crops up between the two feels like the most natural thing in the world. They’re elevated to a higher plane. It’s as if their love had been ordained by God himself, into whose domain they’ve unwittingly trespassed. In one of the movie’s many moving interludes, Jack asks Ennis, who’s gazing skyward, “Anything interesting up there in heaven?” only to receive the surprisingly candid reply, “I was just sending up a prayer of thanks…” The majestic scenery offers them a privileged view of the Promised Land, heaven here on earth. It’s understandable that Jack would want his ashes scattered on Brokeback Mountain.
Suitably, images of powerful, diesel fueled trucks traversing the wide expanse of landscape in front of Brokeback bookend the movie, first at dawn, from right to left, later at dusk a sadder procession, from left to right. As the sun rises and sets on this great romance, the horizontal motion accentuates the vastness of the liberating landscape. It’s this liberation, which he experiences in Jack’s presence on the mountain, that Ennis will cheat himself of by choosing to conform, living his life in the closet. To a cowboy used to roaming under the canopy of the stars, it must seem like the most confining of spaces by contrast. Ennis, who could’ve had the whole world in his hands, ends up cramped in a little mousetrap of a trailer, separated forever from the welcoming sky and green, rolling prairie just outside his window but now eternally out of reach. He willingly fences himself in.
Lee is striking a note integral to our collective national psyche here, and he hits a raw nerve, one reason why Brokeback Mountain so immediately sank into the cultural subconscious. The yearning for freedom from the inhibitions and constraints of civilization cuts way back to the ‘Go West’ mentality of America’s Empire-building years and even earlier, almost to the inception of the country itself. As long as men pushed further West into the untrodden virgin territories, there would always be exciting new worlds to discover, the country could never stagnate, as Ennis’ life does. As he says, “About all the travelin’ I ever done is goin’ round the coffeepot lookin’ for the handle… I’m nowhere, nothing.” To people who couldn’t be happy, or fit into a society that trivialized and demonized their love for each other, the wild, rough country offered them refuge, protection from possible judgment, jail, murder. They’d always existed on the margins anyway, going West was just pushing a little further out. Tellingly, the relationship here begins and ends in the wilderness places, where civilized laws hold no sway. As with most Westerns, Brokeback Mountain sees civilization as the domain of the frilly and the feminine. As Ennis becomes ensconced in this woman’s world, losing his independence, the camera frame itself seems to be boxing him in. Moving from the sprawling country (“I’m tired of these lonesome old ranches,” his morose wife Alma glumly states), to a tiny apartment over a laundry in town, he becomes increasingly enervated, his views cut by clothes lines, window panes, stair railings with bars, swing sets with chains, like the ball and chain he feels his marriage to be (“I’m stuck with what I got here.”). Jack’s visits are the breath of life to him (when he reappears Jack is outfitted in passionate reds – he’s like lifeblood to Ennis), the only respite offered him from the suffocating trap he’s snared in. You wouldn’t think the sight of a pickup truck speeding toward them thar hills would evoke a response akin to soaring abandon but it does, because we know that for Ennis and Jack it signals an ecstatic liberation. At moments like these the movie takes to full flight as well. On their annual getaways, the two men (who skinny dip together like overgrown schoolboys, shucking their clothes along with all the other attendant inhibitions of polite society) might be Tom and Huck, escaping from tyrannical old Aunt Polly’s civilizin’ influence, on a raft down the mighty Mississippi. Even people who take the path of least resistance, trying mule headedly to conform to convention, as these guys do, end up not really fitting in. They can neither commit themselves to the marriages they enter into half-heartedly, or fully accept their feelings for each other, because the sins of the world are weighing down on their shoulders. It’s a burden heavy enough to break anybody’s back.
Not just religion, which is an issue discreetly skirted while still being kept foremost in our mind by inference and suggestion, such as biblical imagery of the fate that befalls a sheep who strays from the flock and the words read over the marriage ceremony: “Lead us not unto temptation, but deliver us from evil.” In addition, we hear Jack singing a Pentecostal hymn his mother taught him and see the prevalent picture of Christ she keeps on her wall. There are campfire references to sinners marching off to hell come judgement day and Alma wants to attend the church social whose fire and brimstone crowd Ennis wants no part of.
But there’s a far less insidious form of homophobia at work here than that propagated by religious fundamentalism. As a nine year old boy, his father had taken Ennis to witness the fate of those who deviate from the social norm, and the traumatic event has haunted him ever since. Ennis lives his life in dread that openly declaring a love that dare not speak its name could endanger Jack’s life, or his life, or both. Some things are better left unsaid. In that regard Ennis is as careful and circumspect as a live wire like Jack, who can’t fathom why they shouldn’t do precisely as they please (“It’s nobody’s business but ours”), is devil-may-care. Ennis is all sense to Jack’s sensibility, and that I guess is what really draws them back together over the years. Like their color-coordinated horses and matching cowboy hats, they balance out, as do the two actors playing them, neither of whose performance would be as rich or varied without its polar opposite to play off. Though about the same age, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, physically speaking, make an odd couple, yet their personalities compliment each other beautifully, and the director lets their individuality seep through, to color their characters. They make ideal foils, and if their appearances on the awards and talk show rounds are any indication, the actors have been cast pretty much to type. Ennis and Jack are like two halves of a whole, one begins where the other ends. It’s not just about the sex, which can easily be had, as Jack proves cruising down Mexico way. It’s only in these moments of grace, stolen away from the compromised mess they’ve made of their lives, that either man feels completed. Like Brokeback’s inclement weather, which seems to mirror the shifting moods of their tempestuous romance, they’re in perfect simpatico. They even walk down the street together in unconscious lockstep.
In the West, it’s not even enough for men to be men. They must be swaggering, two-fisted, chauvinistic he-men just to measure up. Little wonder then that Ennis and Jack, who evince such wariness and mistrust (stealing furtive glances inside Aguirre’s trailer, then dropping their eyes, each trying to pretend he wasn’t staring) before becoming acquainted, would fall head over heels for the first man to ever exhibit genuine tenderness toward them. But even that relatively straightforward emotion gets all tangled up. Half the time we can’t tell when these two guys are embracing or fighting, when their sex is an extension of their love or their hostility. Do they even know themselves? It’s likely the tight-lipped, inarticulate Ennis, who can only express his repressed emotions through unexpected outbursts of physical violence, doesn’t while Jack’s too laid back and easy going to care much one way or the other.
Conflicting emotions slip back and forth between them like quicksilver. When they’re not polishing each others’ knobs, they’re giving each other shiners. This is a tortuous and, ultimately, ruinous relationship (“A g*ddamn b*tch of an unsatisfactory situation,” Jack calls it), equal parts love and self-loathing. But the only time these wranglers, who spend their lives embattled with livestock, other cowpokes, and castrating wives, can lower their guard and be themselves, is in each other’s presence. When alone, they needn’t preserve the pretense of being macho, heterosexual simps. They needn’t overcompensate. Although Ennis and Jack both claim to be straight, their most loving, long-standing sexual bond is with each other. This affair they claim to be a one shot thing keeps going on and on, year after year, becoming the emotional center of their lives, and the film holds their liaison so above and apart from the ordinary run of homosexuality it hardly seems to qualify. Their love develops from the intensity of their friendship, simple male bonding unexpectedly crossing the line here into something more intimate and meaningful.
These guys aren’t gay per se – gay men don’t spend the majority of their lives with women having children. While Jack seems ambidextrous, as events present themselves, Ennis would probably have gone through life quite secure in his sexuality if the two men had never met, a fact he acknowledges late in the film (“It’s your fault I’m like this, Jack.”). His love for another man collides with, rather than forms the fabric of, his life. Brokeback Mountain then is not simply about gay love, but a love so strong it crosses all boundaries, gender or otherwise. It’s about the transcendence of love, a fact which has allowed this movie to become a crossover hit.
Initially, we think as these guys do, that they turned to each other for comfort on that mountain out of desperation and loneliness. But as each tries to find fulfillment through marriages and fatherhood, Ennis marrying Alma, hoping to stave off his proclivities, Jack marrying Lureen for companionship and security, we come to the startling conclusion that they’d got it right the first time. Their wives fail to fill the aching need inside. Those four years they’re out of contact are like a slow, solitary crawl toward the grave for both of them. Forget hell, it couldn’t be any worse than this. The sound of the constant wind, blowing dust and tumbleweeds, is a fitting metaphor for the men’s empty, inner lives apart from each other. The howling isolation they feel manifests itself in this sound, as mournful and longing as a lone wolf baying at the moon. Ang wisely doesn’t try to analyze the wells from which such feelings spring. Instead, love is depicted as something irrational, impulsive and instinctual, the unpredictable “force of nature” the movie’s poster describes it as, an elemental emotion which can’t be controlled anymore than the weather can. Science has no rationale for it. If it did, these guys would’ve found a way to rectify their situation long ago. The fact that Ennis and Jack have sex matters less to them than maintaining a macho façade, with their wives, kids, hunting trips, fishing trips, honky tonks, bar hopping and bed hopping. By displacing their feelings for each other through marriages and affairs, these two are trying to prove to themselves that they’re still virile men in the traditional sense. When Ennis and Jack pack up and head off to the mountains at a moment’s notice, leaving Alma in the lurch to mind the kids, we’re incensed less because she’s being deceived than because she’s being excluded, as women have since time immemorial, from the good ol’ boys’ club. They’re acting less like adulterers than sexist swine, as is Ennis when he assumes his job takes precedence over hers, or when he demands that she call into work to stay home and fix supper, because “No one’s eatin’ unless you’re servin’ it.” Being queer matters less in this rugged environment than acting it, being perceived as effete and weak. When Ennis trounces those bikers, it’s less because of their offensive language than because their jibe “I bet he stopped giving it to his wife after the kids was born,” hits a little too close to home. And when Jack finally asserts himself with his overbearing father-in-law in that great populist scene (the crowd I saw the film with actually cheered), it’s also because his masculinity’s been impugned. The movie is trying to dispel the notion that being gay is synonymous with being limp-wristed, so it liberates homosexuality from the old flamboyant stereotype only to chain it to another, as equally unrealistic. Is that really preferable? If Ennis wasn’t so hung up on such tropes himself, he might have been inclined to be more loving. As it is, he’s so uncomfortable with the nature of what he’s doing, that he turns Jack away when taking his pleasure, so he won’t have to face him, or keeps his eyes clapped tightly shut, so he won’t have to face himself. Brought up to believe that boys don’t cry or express their feelings, that they’re not even supposed to have them, the surly Ennis has grown into an uncommunicative social cripple. He’s so guarded, constricted, and defensive that he can hardly string a couple of syllables together without much grunting effort, the corners of his mouth settling into hard, fixed puffs of cotton. For this cowboy there’s no such thing as freedom of speech. Being too forthcoming could give him away, proving he’s not quite everything he pretends to be. But by concealing so much, he’s condemned himself to a life that won’t allow for physical or emotional intimacy. Even being around his little girls makes him uncomfortable, because he doesn’t know how to show them affection. There’s a reason why Ennis and Jack’s fiery encounters are set in the frozen north, “Why is it we’re always in the friggin’ cold?” Jack asks. The answer is obvious – the cold serves as the controlling metaphor for Ennis’ emotional frigidity, the way the titular tempest did in The Ice Storm.
Ennis relaxes enough in Jack’s presence to open up a bit about his childhood, his life, his hopes and fears (“Friend, that’s more words than you’ve spoke in the past two weeks,” Jack wryly observes, after Ennis spills what for him passes as a mouthful. “Hell, that’s the most I’ve spoke in a year,” comes the sad reply.). The nearest Ennis ever gets to laughing is a crooked grin whenever Jack goes off on one of his larks, such as trying to disprove the notion that “all rodeo cowboys are f*ck-ups” (a line that brings to mind Dustin Hoffman’s classic declaration in Midnight Cowboy that “all cowboys are fags –” does that qualify as an homage?). Jack brings this shy recluse out of himself, getting Ennis to horse around (tipping Jack’s hat off his head), to laugh at himself (conducting along, in solemn gravity, to Jack’s hymn), even crack a joke or two (his dry wit centering chiefly around his friend’s harmonica playing). That Ennis becomes capable of expressing any emotion at all is directly attributable to Jack’s salutary influence on him.
The hard, arduous life of a migrant ranch hand had made it much easier for him to sublimate his feelings through his calloused fists. It follows that a semi-literate man as inarticulate as Ennis would find it practically impossible to put his sentiments into words, and this infirmity infuriates him. Like Melville’s stuttering Billy Budd, he ends up lashing out in impotent fury instead. Upon hearing that the sheep are to be herded down off the mountain for instance, and consequently their summer of love to be brought to a premature end, Ennis, rather than declaring himself to this man he’s grown so attached to, turns a harmless game of horseplay into an out and out fight instead. For an orphan with abandonment issues, bruises heal quicker than emotional wounds. When trying to protect his wife and children from the course language of those bikers at the fourth of July fireworks display, he ends up beating them to a bloody pulp, exposing his little family to sights much worse than anything they could’ve heard.
So memorable is this uncommon display of what he equates with ‘tenderness’ that he’s mythologized, blown up to epic proportions as the rockets burst in air, illuminating the night all around him. He’s what the conflicted American male, as epitomized by the cowboy, represents to the Taiwanese director – declarations of tough love on the public stage, with both hands kept tightly, threateningly clenched. Men do their talking with their fists. There’s an underlying theme here that fails to concretely emerge, concerning a West predicated on violence and brutality, won by the bloody rule of the gun, a West that has never really laid that savage past to rest. It’s an idea similar to the one kicked around in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence earlier in the year. This is a society that encourages its sons to fight, teaching them that it’s more socially acceptable to be physically aggressive than affectionate toward one another. It’s why Ennis punches Jack rather than embracing him, and why men who dare openly display their love for each other end up dead.
Ennis, who whittles in his spare time, speaks so gently to his daughters, and hums Jack that lullaby his mother taught him, has a sensitive soul he’s been forced to suppress lest it be crushed. The world’s beat it out of him. This gun shy, mistrustful loner’s emotional paralysis and propensity for violence are byproducts of the society in which he was reared. They don’t appear to grow out of him organically, as his yearning for tenderness does (note his resplendent expression when he lowers his guard enough to fully give himself over that second time in the tent). It’s this very intimacy, the kind he can’t display himself, which Ennis hankers for from Jack, what draws him back to him. Unfortunately, like many men, Ennis equates such sentiments with softness and weakness – femininity – and by doing so, can never come to terms with them. He’s pulled between his need for tenderness and the rugged cowboy lifestyle he aspires to. To Ennis’ inflexible mind, he must be one or the other, tough or tender. The lack of any leeway leaves him conflicted, torn between two extremes. The inherent homophobia of this man who embarks on a decades long homosexual affair is something Brokeback Mountain never satisfactorily explicates either (“I hear what they have in Mexico for boys like you,” Ennis spits, distancing himself from Jack and, by extension, his own homosexuality), just how profoundly he, like everyone else born of that society at that time, has been touched by it’s deep-rooted prejudices. To his mind, homosexuality is an affliction, one that debilitates his life. It’s a sickness that’s communicable (“It’s your fault I’m like this,” he accuses Jack, as if he’d caught something contagious). As a preventative measure, Ennis imposes a personal quarantine from human contact on himself, dropping Cassie cold turkey and refusing to let his daughter move in with him. He feels he should be punished and self seclusion is the proud penance he must perform for harboring unwholesome thoughts.
Like Alma, he believes by not acknowledging his sexual preference, by ignoring it, it will simply go away. But by not speaking, by concealing so much, he ruins not just his own life, but his wife’s, children’s, Cassie’s, and Jack’s as well. Everyone in Ennis’ orbit is left hanging by his infuriating unresponsiveness. At day’s end, Ennis is left alone, a shattered shell of a man, with nothing but a lifetime of regrets, and the fading, tattered remnants of what might have been (“When you don’t have nothin’ you don’t need nothin’.”). His desire to keep everyone at a certain distance has exhausted all avenues for this man who had the potential to be such a warm, loving human being. Ennis ends up turning his back on the very people who care about him most, throwing love away that’s his for the taking. Whoever said silence was golden? This is a difficult part to play because virtually nothing about the character is revealed through dialogue, leaving Heath Ledger with little to work with. I’d first been impressed by this actor when I saw him as Sonny in Monster’s Ball, playing another character who found it difficult to connect with other human beings due to a domineering dad who had browbeat him into becoming a recalcitrant tough guy. Billy Bob Thornton was Ledger’s father in that film, and I swear to you at times here Ledger’s growls, gravelly enunciation, and even his throat clearings, seem intended to recall Thornton’s Carl from Sling Blade. The actor nails the flat, Mid-West accent as easily as he did Sonny’s southern drawl (at times I detected traces of Mel Gibson’s twang in The River too, but this is probably a feature of the Australian accent), the sound welling up from some deep inner reservoir at the pit of Ennis’ soul that nobody, not even Jack, who comes closest, can ever quite reach. He sounds more authentic than co-star Gyllenhaal, but while the latter has a silver tongue for turning cornpone phrases into wounded flights of poetry, Ledger’s clipped speech seems as stark as a haiku. His stony silences intrigue us, just as they do Cassie. They rope us in, inviting us to scrutinize his hard face, with its granite jaw, so squared it’s almost round, and evasive, beady eyes set deep in their sockets, for any sign of intelligent life. Lee and Ledger seem to be trying to do more than construct a character out of this taciturn cowboy. They want him to stand as something more; at times he’s presented as an iconic figure. It’s almost as if they were attempting to encapsulate an entire generation of closed off, undemonstrative men, uncomfortable expressing their emotions because they’d been taught that doing so wasn’t manly. Together, they completely subvert the strong, silent type we’ve grown so accustomed to after 100 years of Westerns.
Such earlier laconic cowboy misfits as Montgomery Clift (Red River and The Misfits), James Dean (Giant), Paul Newman (Hud, another Larry McMurtry adaptation), and Steve McQueen (The Magnificent Seven) are visually channeled. Some have gone so far as to compare Ledger to Marlon Brando, whose unconventional method of delivering dialogue was considered quite revolutionary in the 50’s, leading certain critics to accuse him of mumbling his lines. By the time Ennis goes riding off into that final sunset, his last time on the mountain with Jack, we want to cry out for him to come back, the same way Brandon de Wilde did Alan Ladd’s Shane. Gyllenhaal, who’s gifted with the flashier role, could easily have upstaged the star, but it’s Ledger who keeps the film securely grounded. At first I thought he just might be hiding behind his character turn here, so as not to have to grapple with this material directly, on a personal level. After all, he immediately slipped into the guise of Casanova, history’s greatest womanizer, to disengage himself from this role, then married co-star Michelle Williams and fathered a child as further testament to his virility. However, Ledger, who grew up on a farm in Western Australia, observing the behaviors and traits of ranch hands, and has claimed he played this tightly wound character as if he were a clenched fist, succeeded in changing my mind. He gets under Ennis’ increasingly tough, leathery hide, taking him places that would make most other young actors of his generation exceedingly skittish to go. He gets closer than close. Like those entwined shirts, he slips into this part like a second skin. In the year’s most revelatory turn, he taps into the transcendent. His is a study in the eloquence of inexpressiveness. Attempts to hide what he’s thinking and feeling from the people around him, even from the camera, say more than mere words ever could. He tilts his head to steal a quick glance at someone, or lowers the brim of his Stetson so that the shadow falls over his face obscuring furtive eyes seeking escape from uncomfortable situations, or simply can’t bring himself to look people in the eye out of fear of what they know (“You ever get the feelin’…when you’re in town and somebody looks at you suspicious, like he knows, then you go out on the pavement and everyone’s lookin’ at you like they all know too?”), guilt at what he knows, or both. Ledger allows body language to express the things his emotionally unavailable character can’t verbalize. It’s a performance that goes far beyond the scripted page. I love Ledger’s nervous nail biting, late in the film, when he has to break the news to Jack that they can’t meet again until November, and his sheepish, almost apologetic, little shuffle up to the tent for that second encounter, hat in hand and placed discreetly in front of his groin, as his downcast eyes, full of trepidation, look anywhere else but into Jake’s. Heath keeps his performance so tightly within bounds that those rare occasions when his pent up loner does unexpectedly let loose have additional impact. Doubling over, as a wave of nausea hits him like a freight train, at the realization that he’s let Jack slip away, perhaps forever, or later, slowly breaking down, the first tears we’ve ever seen him cry, as he discovers Jack’s fed up with their relationship (“I wish I knew how to quit you,” he declares – a line of choice dialogue that’s become the movie’s most quoted catchphrase) and has been unfaithful.
“What I don’t know,” Ennis warns, looking him squarely in the eye with barely contained rage, and speaking more prophetically than he realizes, “all them things I don’t know, could get you killed if I should come to know them. I ain’t joking.” It’s at moments like these, when his character’s carefully controlled emotions broil to the surface, that the depth of his unspoken pain becomes palpably apparent. Jack accuses him of not understanding how bad it gets, longing for something you can never have (“Truth is, sometimes I miss you so much I can hardly stand it.”), but the tragedy is that Ennis does know, all too well. Only the feelings he could never put into words before, have deepened beyond the power of mere words to convey. Unlike Gyllenhaal, who is unaccountably made up to resemble Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit, sporting a handlebar mustache too big for his face and which, when photographed in the wrong light, just makes him look younger, Ledger doesn’t seem to change much physically over the decades the narrative spans, except perhaps to become more leathery and slightly sallow; he’s caving in, imploding emotionally while his already thick skin begins to petrify, becoming ever more impenetrable. The wispier he gets the more he seems to be disappearing before our eyes. He’s already receded emotionally from the world around him. As he fades away, the years can touch him but lightly. Gyllenhaal plays Jack Twist just as his name would suggest. He’s the zest, the special twist that gives Ennis’ dry existence that extra flavor. If I’ve given less consideration to his character heretofore, it’s not because Gyllenhaal’s performance is weaker exactly (on the contrary, he even eclipses his work in the cult fave Donnie Darko; for the first time I’m capable of distinguishing him from celebrity look alike Jason Biggs), but because the part he’s playing hasn’t been as carefully thought out or developed. The story the movie is based on focused almost exclusively on Ennis, and though screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana have tried to fluff up and flesh out the part, it still comes off second best. Though the two actors are roughly the same size, Gyllenhaal is frequently placed in the frame behind Ledger, or at a forced perspective that likewise reduces his stature on the screen, visually diminishing his character, making him seem of lesser importance in relation to Ennis. The actor toils away with an admirable professionalism despite these limitations. He goes for broke, drawing his character in broad, sweeping strokes in order to leave the most vivid impression possible in the least amount of time. He’s personality plus and many critics have taken him to task for playing Jack so loudly, jarring with Ledger’s subdued performance, but I’m damned if I know what else the actor could’ve done with this partial of a part. If he’d played it subtly, rather than coming on strong, we wouldn’t understand why his colorful brand of extroversion appears so attractive to the repressed Ennis.
The conception of black hat (the traditional accouterment of villains in Westerns, as is the mustache he’ll sport later on) Jack as a dark, sinister figure, the devil’s right hand, who leads innocent Ennis, with his angelic, pre-Raphaelite blond locks, down the wayward path (“You may be a sinner, but I ‘ain’t yet had the opportunity.”) remains an ambiguous idea. So does the correlation of Jack, with his pronounced canines and pointed ears, to the coyotes that stalk and pick off the livestock. “We’re supposed to guard the sheep, not eat ‘em,” Ennis must remind him at one point, not long before Jack pounces on him beneath a full moon, as though he were a werewolf who’d suddenly sprouted fur. We’re never quite sure if this is the way Ennis, whose shotgun is featured prominently after that first encounter, teasing us with the possibility that he might shoot Jack down as his father, and countless generations before him, would have, shoot Jack down like the coyote he strings up as a warning), sees his seducer, or the way we’re supposed to – as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, who pulled the wool over his eyes. Certainly Ang would appear to be playing into right wing fears of gay men as sexual predators out to corrupt the nation’s youth, as Gene Shalit’s controversial review of the film attested, but I trust the director’s motivations. I think Lee’s anticipating the reactionary moviegoer’s knee jerk response by reflecting such presuppositions from the get go, holding a mirror up to them, depicting Jack in this light initially, only in order to question and undermine expectations. He subsequently sets out to delve beneath this surface cliché, the same way he does with the “gay cowboy” premise, in order to deepen our understanding of the character. This apparent wolf in sheep’s clothing will end up his sacrificial lamb. The irrepressible Jack isn’t a fully thought out character as much as a mechanism of change, a dust devil that whirls into Ennis’ life and turns everything upside down, so that nothing can ever be set to rights again. Jack’s the one Twist on Ennis’ otherwise straight and narrow path, and like his parents, who died when they missed a sharp turn in the road, Ennis’ life also skids out of control at this dangerous curve he never sees coming. Whereas the sullen Ennis is virtually inert, the loquacious Jack can hardly sit still. He has the nervous edginess of a city boy, so it’s not surprising he won’t be boxed in by the little minds of small towns. Unpredictable, lively, impulsive, to a straight shooter like Ennis, who never questions the rules and codes society spoon feeds him (watch how uncomfortable he’s made listening to Jack’s seditious “Aguirre got no right makin’ us do somethin’ against the rules.”), Jack must seem like chaos personified, as wild and unruly as those bucking broncos he busts (“There’s no reigns on this one.”), both terrifying and terribly exciting. He makes a new man of Ennis, edging him out of his dull, predictable ruts, urging him to try new and different things (“No more beans!”), to question authority (“That son of a b*tch is cuttin’ us out of a whole month’s pay. It ‘aint right.”), to stop playing by the rules, even inducing him to break that ultimate taboo by enticing him into a homosexual affair, consistently striving to bring him out, to liberate him from the constrictive closet he’s constructed for himself. It’s Jack’s advice that “Maybe you ought to get out a there, try someplace different. Maybe Texas.” He’s the only sign of life in his friend’s arid existence in the flat lands, and Ennis, who isn’t very sharp (he doesn’t know what ‘condiments’ means), is smart enough to recognize this, cleaving to him desperately, at the expense of all else, neglecting his herding duties, and later, his financial responsibilities and family.
That the son of a strictly religious mother, who keeps a home that’s a study in Spartan simplicity, and an overbearing father, whose ice-cold eyes burn with zealous indignation (they embody the film’s view of Old and New Testament, a God of wrath and a Lord of love), would grow up to become such a restless free spirit is possible, given many children of repressed households begin acting out the first chance they get. But it’s highly unlikely that Jack would seek his disapproving father’s blessing by the unorthodox means of promising to one day bring his lover back home to set up house and whip his dilapidated ranch back into shape for him. The supplementary story of Jack asserting himself with his domineering father-in-law might have had more impact if the correlation had been more strongly established between J.P. and the real father who bullied him as a boy, and whose good graces he never ceased trying to ingratiate himself into. It’s a family dynamic Jack seems to be trying to change through his relationship with his own son, but that’s just conjecture, since we see too little of it to say for certain, much less than we do Ennis’ evolving relationship with his eldest daughter (the youngest girl just seems to drop out of the picture). Ang has stated that he made Brokeback Mountain in memory of his deceased father, which is odd, given the film’s harsh representation of the paternal figure. Both Ennis and Jack’s craving for love from another man can be traced back to their unfulfilling relationships with the primary male role models in their lives. Ennis’ most clear memory of the father who died when he was a boy, is of being taken by him to view the body of a hate crime victim, hardly the most endearing sort of outing, a man who impressed him as so harsh that he can seriously state “for all I know he done the job.”
From what we gather, Jack’s father isn’t too far removed by degrees from this homophobic mindset either. He doesn’t try to kill his son, but there are clear indications he ran him off at a young age (when Ennis reveals that he comes from ranch people as well, Jack’s first thought is “Your folks run you off?”), and has been pleased for him to keep his distance since (“My old man… never taught me anything, never once come to see me ride.”), only occasionally abiding his presence when exploiting his labors as a hired hand (“Beats workin’ for my old man, can’t please my old man no way.”). Conversely, both men’s mothers, the only people who ever showed them love before they met each other, are depicted with extraordinary sympathy. The one time Ennis openly displays affection for Jack is when he hums that lullaby his mother taught him, whereas Jack’s mother counters her husband’s severity toward Ennis with unexpected compassion and understanding. It was a shrewd, far thinking move to make Gyllenhaal the aggressor in this relationship. Well aware that everyone but his two main characters knows what’s coming, Ang nevertheless keeps us in suspense by leading us to believe that the assertive Jack, who “doubt(s) there’s a filly that can throw me,” will be the dominant partner here, as opposed to Ennis with his soft, rounded features and recessive nature. The turnabout then is rather startling. Jake is so outgoing, personable, and daffy that he provides virtually all the humor in this grueling movie in sore need of some (one richly discordant exception: a panicking Ennis is cornered on a paving job with a road worker who can’t stop yammering). Where Ennis can’t express his feelings, capricious Jack covers his hurt and pain with jokes and laughter. Gyllenhaal is instantly likable, so much so that audiences aren’t scared off by his character’s overtures the way they likely would have been had a less charismatic actor played him. Somehow he puts viewers at ease, the same way he does the uptight Ledger. We trust him, only momentarily questioning what motivates Jack to pull the sleeping Ennis’ hand down to his crotch, or how mercenary this starving bull rider’s ulterior motives were in taking up with Lureen upon discovering that she came from money. With his gift of gab and theatrical flair (such as proudly showing off his tin horn belt buckle, later he’ll buy into the whole ‘everything is bigger in Texas’ mentality of the Reaganomics/Dallas years, doing a spot-on J.R. Ewing impression), we can’t help rooting for Jake’s Jack to draw Ennis out, by drawing him into their affair. It’s a showy role for Gyllenhaal and he takes full advantage, his goofy, long-limbed gangliness (he seems all arms and legs), long gash of a mouth as wide as a carved pumpkin, and curious, cartoonish features (undercut by those big, bright-sad, almond-shaped eyes with their drooping, half-closed lids) giving him a curiously dopey appearance. I’m afeared those sloe-eyes and hangdog expression are going to doom poor Jake to a career playing characters who aren’t very bright. Gyllenhaal’s specialty lies not just in his unique inflections (every time he warily broaches the possibility of the two of them settling down together, his softened vocalization tells us he expects to be turned down; it’s the same way Alma Jr. sounds when she asks her father if she can move in with him, and later invites him to her wedding), but in his incredibly soulful reaction shots as well. Watch the myriad emotions that flicker across Gyllenhaal’s face when Aguirre refuses him work and orders him out of his trailer as if he were something “the wind blew in,” when Ennis self consciously shrinks away as Jack tries to tend his head wound, or when a lonely, financially strapped Jack offers to buy the rodeo clown who saved his life a bottle of beer, only to be rebuffed. I think his finest moment however is his final scene, the visage of his smitten young self, transposed with his current, aged one as he watches the man he loves riding away from him for the first time, and the last. Gyllenhaal’s look of mixed love, longing, and hope for a bright future with this man who seemed to harbor such capacity for love at that fleeting moment, becomes all the more poignant when placed in direct contrast to his emotionally embittered, middle-aged self, resigned to his fate, having given Ennis up for lost. Without a word, his parting glances say everything; he never had an inkling that was the most content he’d ever be. Gyllenhaal’s introspective moments of reflection are as insightful as Ledger’s studied silences. In them he excels.
We can grasp well enough why Ennis is attracted to Jack, but precisely why Jack is attracted to Ennis is harder to understand. What isn’t explicitly stated but is obvious nevertheless is that Jack’s first time with Ennis is far from his first time at the rodeo. It’s likely it’s not even his first time on Brokeback (he worked the mountain the summer before); certainly he’s sizing his prospective partner up from the moment they meet. However, Ennis is apparently the only long-term relationship he’s ever had, the only man who ever saw him as more than just a casual pick-up, a “one shot thing.” Jack falls in love with the fact that Ennis has fallen in love with him (though he never comes right out and says so, this is made obvious nevertheless by Ennis’ reluctance to leave the mountain). He’s the only man Ennis has ever been with or would ever want to be with (Jack is careful to conceal his affairs with other men from Ennis, while boasting about his prowess with the ladies). He’s special to him, the one constant in his life, and to an insecure guy whose cold father never showed him any warmth, it must be gratifying that this man at least recognizes him as something special. Knowing he’s not good for nothing in an otherwise unappreciative world gives him a sense of self worth.
After a transitory life full of zipperless boot knocking, Jack has discovered something more fulfilling and meaningful than casual sex. With this lover it’s soulful communion, connubial bliss. He knows full well how much his infidelities will infuriate Ennis when he finally cottons up to them, but as Jack justly states, what else could he do when Ennis kept him at arm’s length? He’s too full of life to waste away little by little as Ennis does. Jack’s the one who always wanted more substance from their relationship. It’s obvious to Jack, whose smarter than Ennis (he uses words like ‘asphyxiate’) and moves up in the world, that they had hold of something special enough to build a life on, but his earnest entreaty, subtly reiterated throughout the course of the film, falls on deaf ears. He’s eager to stop roaming and make a home on the range, wanting what lovers have wanted from time immemorial: some commitment to the relationship and emotional openness from his partner. He’d marry Ennis if he could.
Jack’s a born dreamer, like the one Gyllenhaal played in October Sky. He’s also a smooth-talking huckster, as he proves when hawking his father-in-law’s farm equipment, but in the end he ends up conning himself worse than anyone. The quixotic castles he’d built in the air may have seemed tangible enough, but prove to be made of sand, disintegrating just as easily. After encountering the real deal, true love, everything else becomes prelude. Jack optimistically throws away the next two decades, doggedly waiting for Ennis to come around and their real life together to begin. It never does, and this hopeless romantic’s painful disillusionment proves almost as great a tragedy as the closeted Ennis’ own. In many ways, his Jack is the achy breaky heart of Brokeback Mountain, its bruised soul. It was the fear of his being stigmatized and brutalized that deterred Ennis from settling down with him in the first place, but by abandoning this little lost lamb to the wolves, he inadvertently sent him into the jaws of death anyway. Or so he believes. Lureen claims Jack died in a roadside accident; Ennis is convinced he was gay bashed, in a manner identical to the sight he’d witnessed as a boy.
Yes, Jack becomes a martyr for the cause of male on male monogamy, a Christ-like figure if you will. He ends up suffering the very fate Ennis had sacrificed his life trying to save him from. What a waste. Ennis never recovers from the loss, blaming himself for it, and regretting all the chances he never took. The absence of this man who’d been little more than a romantic aside for the majority of his life has left a void inside that can never be filled. Yet ironically, in death, Jack succeeds in accomplishing what he couldn’t in life, jolting Ennis out of emotional hibernation, inspiring him to start tearing down the fortress of solitude he’d erected around himself so that he wouldn’t have to get involved, so that he couldn’t get hurt. When he discovers Jack’s blue button up wrapped in loving embrace around that old, bloody white shirt Ennis thought he had lost so long ago on Brokeback Mountain, in a recess of the closet he could never fully escape from, the emotional impact is overpowering. Jack may have failed to change the course of Ennis’ life while he was in it but, before declaring if he had it all to do over again he’d have done things differently (“Jack, I swear –”), Ennis makes his first real breakthrough by agreeing to attend his daughter’s wedding. Leaning forward, encouraging us to listen closely to every carefully measured word, his simple inquiry “This Kurt, he loves you?” speaks volumes, confirming that this lonely man who forfeited his own chance for happiness, has a finer appreciation for just how much it means to be loved by someone, in this cold, cruel world, than he used to. It’s not earth shaking, but it’s a step in the right direction nonetheless. Jack would’ve been proud. So would Kate Winslet. The sentiment seems lifted right out of Titanic, in which the main character consecrated herself to sustaining the spirit of another martyred Jack, who had also succeeded in liberating her “in every way possible,” including sexually). Afraid to let his vulnerabilities, needs, longings, and fears shine through before, this turn about at movie’s end, successfully chipping through that emotional ice the same way Kevin Kline did at the thaw of The Ice Storm is, for him, a considerable achievement. As Ang’s embodiment of the all-American male, this remote cowboy’s commitment to change holds out hope for the country as a whole.
Brokeback Mountain is, for the most part, a two-character film, but other actors do manage to make their mark. Casting craggy Randy Quaid was an inspired stroke of genius. Though the role is a small one, the actor was correct to champion his contribution to the film when he sued the producers for misrepresenting the project to him. He brings a cinematic legacy to the character, filling it out in a way that would have been impossible with someone else. He has such quiet command and authority here, he seems to have inherited Ben Johnson’s noble regality from The Last Picture Show.
But Quaid’s Joe Aguirre, whose name, fittingly, references Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (the eyes of God are always upon us, even when we think no one else is looking), lacks Sam the Lions’ open heart and compassionate soul. He’s just a sour old apostle of judgment, sitting on his moral high horse. With characters like this, the film puts us in a position of judgment too, but we’re sitting in judgment on the disapproving society he represents, we’re being asked to sit in judgment on ourselves. Like the baleful Brokeback Mountain, The Last Picture Show was also a lament for people stuck in small western towns, dissatisfied with their limited lives, but unable to escape them. Even Jack’s sojourn to Mexico recalls the similar journey Jeff Bridges and Timothy Bottoms took south of the border in that earlier film. Brokeback also puts me in mind of an Ellen Burstyn line from The Last Picture Show, one I’ve never forgotten, in which she claims if it hadn’t been for Johnson’s Sam the Lion, with whom she’d carried on an affair as a girl, “I guess I would’ve just about missed it, whatever ‘it’ is.” Well, if it hadn’t been for the unexpected love they likewise stumbled across that one fateful summer, Ennis and Jack, as they come to realize later, would have missed out on the best life had to offer them as well. The fingerprints of co-screenwriter and Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Larry McMurtry, who wrote The Last Picture Show, are all over Brokeback Mountain. Don’t think I’m reaching, but I also see the hallmarks of another episodic McMurtry adaptation, Terms of Endearment, in it as well. That movie too was about a passionate, all-consuming love cut tragically short, this time between a mother and daughter, who spent most of their lives likewise distanced by circumstance and geography. One transitional fade-in onto a scene of Alma Jr. and Jenny in the yard, trying to ignore their parents loudly bickering inside, seems directly modeled after an identical time-lapse segue in Terms, as does Brokeback’s parallel structure, as it charts Jack’s increasingly affluent domestic situation and Ennis’ pinched, working class one. Social status slowly, almost imperceptibly, becomes another hindrance to the success of their relationship. Jack gets on in the world thanks to his advantageous marriage, becoming an upwardly mobile WASP who complains about inflation and tax cuts for the wealthy. Quite a turnabout for a guy who once saw no harm in cribbing a sheep or two from a rich man with more than he needed (“What’s the matter with you? There are a thousand of ‘em.”). Ennis’ situation on the other hand remains as economically wan as his widely spaced utterances (“You don’t remember what it’s like being broke all the time.”)
As these two men become separated further and further in class, the disparity never seems to fully dawn on them. The lack of funds to escape his life eventually traps the no longer irresponsible Ennis, who must do his share to help raise two growing girls (“You ever heard of child support?”). While Jack’s dependence on his wealthy wife precludes the thought of his ever leaving Lureen, though earlier on, when he was younger and less complacent, he would’ve taken a pay off from her father to get lost, But only if Ennis was willing to settle down on a ranch somewhere with him. If only they had pooled their resources back when each found himself in the same straits in life, saving up for his own spread. But then, this story about the road not taken is weighted down with ‘what ifs.’ Things were so much simpler when they were both young, broke, and not tied down by familial responsibilities. Their perfect window of opportunity has been shut forever and nailed tight.
As conceived, the women in the film are intended to embody the feminine extremes. The traditional wife and mother, awash in dirty dishes and dirty laundry when not working a part-time job in order to make ends meet, Alma comes across as the dreariest of drudges, making us understand how even a dull guy like Ennis could be bored by her. She’s a sexual wage slave with nothing to offer him but breeding rights, more kids he can’t support, and eventually denies him even that small compensation. Lureen is the film’s idea of the new woman, but it’s a representation that’s just as unflattering. Strident, athletic, sexually aggressive, and in her rodeo duds and, later, tailored business suits, unfeminine as well, she completely emasculates her husband. He fades into insignificance beside this heiress. She’s more butch than he is.
If screenwriter Diana Ossana influenced the lovelorn romanticism of those utopian scenes on Brokeback, which possess the distinct yearn of feminine longing, I salute her, but surely she could’ve helped to more delicately model these brittle female figurines. In this day and age it should no longer be necessary to maneuver audiences into sympathizing with homosexual characters by depicting the women in their lives as castrating gorgons or vapid dolls, like that chatterbox whose husband Jack hooks up with down in Texas (she makes it abundantly clear why he finds Ennis’s muteness infinitely preferable). The wives are victims of their husband’s self-absorption, becoming just as trapped in their dead end marriages. The difference is that they’re not in any way culpable. They walked into the situation blindly.
Michelle Williams’ Alma, like Gyllenhaal’s Jack Twist, feels sketchy, and I don’t understand all the acclaim her performance has been accorded. Is it some knee jerk reaction against the whole Tom-Kat affair which exploded earlier in the year, a subtle signal to Katie Holmes, who co-starred with Williams in the popular teen sudser Dawson’s Creek on TV and was featured in Lee’s earlier The Ice Storm, how a respectable young actress should manage her career? The fact that Williams has big screen talent was obvious as far back as Dick with Kirsten Dunst (it was another role, The Station Agent, that inspired Lee to cast her here), but the part she’s playing is a thankless one. The camera drinks in William’s wide-eyed innocence (that snow sled scene seems a direct homage to Love Story, complete with Ali Mcgraw’s trend setting knitted toboggan), yet we can’t fathom what possibly drew Alma and Ennis together. Surely we aren’t meant to believe that this penniless, monosyllabic ranch hand who can’t express his feelings, actually worked up the courage to court and propose to her, or that she would accept. Even in a small town, there must’ve been more advantageous prospects, as she later proves. She wouldn’t have just settled, not a girl who wants the easy life as badly as Alma appears to. Also, Ennis’ propensity for violence seems to terrify his blushing young bride, though we don’t understand quite why. He can be domineering at times, but doesn’t seem particularly abusive; until that final scene, he never threatens to strike her. Do they divorce because he’s sleeping with another man (which she tolerates for years, though she’s not so innocent she doesn’t know exactly what’s going on), because he never wants to take her out, because he’s too financially irresponsible to support her and the kids, or because he expresses more emotion with Jack than he does with her, sharing confidences with him, at much as he’s capable of sharing confidences with anyone? Why did she marry him again? There’s nothing about their relationship to clue us in on why they’re together, as there is Ennis and Jack. This marriage just seems like an obligatory duty for both, an empty ritual.
I was surprised that there’s so little interaction between the Alma and Jack characters, considering they share the most important man in their lives (both will be left embittered by Ennis’ emotional detachment) and, from brief exchanges with Ennis, both reveal that they recognize the danger of the other to their personal happiness. They’re introduced only once, and then too fleetingly for any sense of rivalry or hostility to become apparent, though it’s obvious that Jack’s presence in her house makes both antsy. Certainly Jack doesn’t know enough of her, or her relationship with Ennis, and can only be thinking of his own marriage, when he indicts his friend with “You and Alma, that’s a life?”
Alma doesn’t strike one as particularly clever or unique, though she does have a doughy, little girlish vulnerability about her that’s quite endearing, and we admire her work ethic. She takes care of herself and the kids when her husband can’t or won’t. Betrayed in the cruelest manner imaginable, Alma derives considerable strength from her devastating experience, using it as the catalyst to begin standing up to her authoritative spouse. The most fascinating facet of their disintegrating relationship is one the movie doesn’t really delve deeply enough into, the fact that Alma usurps her husband’s place as head of the household. Continuing to subscribe to pre-designated gender roles just seems ridiculous under the circumstances. After her discovery, she can no longer abide the pretext that this man who can’t support her wears the pants in the family. To her mind, he’s no longer a man, any more than Lureen’s ‘stud duck’ of a daddy sees Jack as a ‘real’ man. Alma actually finds Monroe, the local grocer and a complete milquetoast, more masculine than Ennis simply because he can give her the lifestyle she wants. After Jack asserts himself and is rewarded with the honor of carving the Thanksgiving day turkey, editors Geraldine Peroni and Dylan Tichenor, for contrast, cut to a scene of an emasculated Ennis sitting on the sidelines while Monroe does the carving at the head of his table.
It’s the closest the film comes to directly questioning what makes a man a real man to the American mind (We also learn during Jack’s spat with his father-in-law that boys must watch football: “You want your son to grow up to be a real man, don’t ya, daughter?”), the very issue Ennis and Jack are grappling with the entire film long. The way things are stacked, we can never get close enough to completely sympathize with Alma, not even when she stumbles upon Ennis in Jack’s arms. Unaccountably we’re more sympathetic when Ennis finds that the man he’s been carrying on an adulterous affair with for the past twenty years has cheated on him. The movie adopts as strangely schizophrenic a stance toward adultery as its main characters. Jack brags about his heterosexual affairs to an appreciative Ennis, but never breathes a word about his infidelities with other men. It’s as though they don’t believe that what they’re doing actually counts. There is some suggestion that Ennis at least finally makes the correlation between one form of adultery and another. Stung by the news that Jack’s been unfaithful, he stops stringing along Cassie, who he’d been seeing on the side. For some reason, Alma is made to seem manipulative (specifically when she wheedles her husband into moving to town, striking below the belt by telling him she doesn’t want her daughters to grow up as lonely as he did, and still is for that matter, without Jack in his life), even vindictive. After she comes to accept that she’s lost Ennis to a feeling he can’t control, the character turns to stone cold marble to match William’s ivory skin. Yet her strength is all internal. On the outside, she seems to be dissolving into teardrops.
She constantly appears on the verge of shrieking. In a painful scene, long after their divorce, when they’ve become amicable enough to spend holidays together (as memorable a Thanksgiving reunion as Lee gave us in The Ice Storm), Alma tries wounding her ex-husband by dredging up the past, tapping the elemental rage she’d managed to hold back, by holding her tongue, all those years. It’s a cathartic uncorking for this woman scorned. Silence proves to have been eating away at her too. Alma is in fact the victim here (Ennis says it’s not her fault when Jack asks him to leave her, and he’s right – it’s his for marrying her in the first place, hoping she’d change him, then dumping her with several kids he’s too irresponsible to help her raise), she’s the one who’s been burned, but because we’ve become accustomed to Ennis and Jack as a couple long before we’re introduced to her, the movie is emotionally slanted in such a way that we nevertheless hate her for keeping the two men apart. When Ennis does eventually get his freedom it’s because she leaves him, rather than visa versa, and even then he continues to dash any hope Jack may have held out for the two of them shacking up together. He’d rather live alone than chance society’s censure, but he’ll never rewed, though even Alma advises him “You ought to get married again, Ennis. Me and the girls worry about you being alone so much,” and Jack prods “You ain’t found no one else to marry, in all this time?”
Anne Hathaway has a bright intro, riding in the rodeo gussied up like a cowboy (is this what attracts Jack?), and for a moment it seems like she might liven up the movie’s morose middle third, which drags perceptibly. But when she devolves into an avaricious human calculator, with badly glued Lee press on nails and some of the most unconvincing blond wigs to ever perch atop an attractive actress’ head, all hope flies out the window. Hathaway is at the same disadvantage as Gyllenhaal here. She tries to make up for an underwritten role by overemphasizing herself, and she suffers comparably in comparison to Michelle Williams.
Her gaudy, candy-colored getups and hairdos jar against the rest of the movie’s subdued tones. Her clothing choices become the only lasting connection to the colorful, lively, self-assertive girl she once was. It’s a way of retaining her own identity in a marriage of convenience that she, like her husband, was trapped into by pregnancy. Unlike Alma, she never gets the chance to vent her rage, but she doesn’t need to; her ensembles do all the shouting out for her. Lureen dresses louder and louder while eventually becoming just as emotionally muted as everyone else. It makes no sense that she should get such a thrill when Jack puts her daddy in his place. After all it was this spoiled princess (fittingly, played by the actress best known heretofore for The Princess Diaries), who’d allowed her wealthy father to treat her husband like a hired hand all those years. She even bestows his imposing portrait in a place of prominence behind her business desk, so he can continue glowering reproachfully down upon Jack from beyond the grave.
The movie also sidesteps the most interesting aspect of Lureen’s relationship with Jack. As she grows into a mature, capable woman and Jack remains an emotionally arrested nineteen year old, Lureen, while unmaternal toward their own child, assumes a mothering role in the relationship (“You know you’re worse than Bobby when it comes to losin’ things.”), taking care of the business while her addled husband, as salesman, does the entertaining and takes care of the kids (“That teacher don’t like me, I complain too much. Now it’s your turn.”). She also ends up wearing the pants in her family, in addition to holding the purse strings.
Although Hathaway doesn’t get a climactic freak out scene to match Williams, she is gifted with that great final phone conversation with Ennis, during which she succinctly distills the dynamics of her disappointing marriage while, courtesy of a few pregnant pauses and pained exhalations, coming to grips with the true nature of his relationship with her husband. Her quiet epiphany, upon learning just why Brokeback Mountain meant so much to Jack (“Well… he always said it was his favorite place.”) is an additional aspect of the film that gains in power by being left understated.
The two actresses who play Cassie (Linda Cardellini) and Alma Jr. (Kate Mara) are treated more compassionately, and have some good moments (surprisingly, Brokeback Mountain has more varied roles for women than it does for men), but their underdeveloped sub-stories unnecessarily sidetrack the narrative. They’ve been inserted as filler to further pad out the film. Only Jack’s perceptive mother begins to assume the definitions of a fully sympathetic human being, touchingly played by Roberta Maxwell. However her weather-beaten American Gothic farmhouse was just a bad idea from any perspective. It’s too self-consciously portentous, running up the red flag that we’re getting right to the worm at the core of America’s homophobic heartland.
Ennis’ visit is just another uncomfortably stiff, meaningless formality, paying his respects the way one is expected to when a friend passes away. He knew Jack’s hard, unfeeling father would never part with the ashes, not because he loved his son more than Ennis did, but as a final means of keeping the two men apart as the society that spawned him had all those long decades. Jack always said his pap had never done right by him. In a way it doesn’t really matter that he won’t honor his son’s dying wish not to be buried on the lone prairie. That would have been an empty gesture as well. Jack’s spirit lives on in those shirts lovingly tucked away in the closet, all those years ago. His memory will likewise live on in Ennis, whose life he had such a profound impact on, as long as he keeps them to cherish, and remember Jack by. It’s just too bad that it took Jack’s death for Ennis to begin to live, permitting him to forever bury, rather than face up to his feelings for him head-on. There’s a sense of poetic irony in such an ending, but this merely serves to beard the fact that it’s too convenient – a cop out. Though hardly an auspicious honor, Brokeback Mountain may possibly be the first Hollywood movie marketed toward the mainstream to depict a relatively graphic lovemaking scene between its two leading men. At least it’s the only one that readily springs to mind. Perhaps Alan Bates and Oliver Reed came closest back when they introduced full frontal male nudity while wrestling together in Women in Love, a movie that also puzzled over the ineffable nature of homoerotic attraction. But after that scene, during which both men remain fully clothed, Brokeback never shows the two actually engaging in intercourse again, though Ennis and his wife go at it twice that I counted and Jack and his once (was the triple heterosexual tryst supposed to expunge any lingering aftertaste from the first sex scene?). Time morphs the men’s carnal lust into the purest form of spiritual love, and I think encouraging the perception that the two emotions are mutually exclusive is a cowardly thing for the movie to do, especially given the power of that initial, jolting interaction. The sex we’re shown isn’t gratuitous. In fact, it tells us much about the growth and deepening of the men’s feelings for one another. Their first attempt at intercourse, photographed coldly, unemotionally, in the frosty chill left by a dead campfire, is fumbling and drunken, more like a fight than a f*ck, startling us as much as it does them with its insatiable ferocity. These guys go at it with all the frenzy of rutting animals. The scene itself, however, comes out of left field. Since there had been little indication of any latent lust building between them, the sex seems peremptory as well as perfunctory, and the director loiters on it long enough to signal the obvious delight he’s taking in his own apparent daring. There’s desperation to the action alright, but it’s the professional desperation of two slightly embarrassed actors who seem to want to get it done, over with, rather than get it on. We’re also surprised the seemingly hesitant Ennis doesn’t voice more of a protest, simply flipping an insistent Jack over in order to reclaim control of the chaotic situation. Their second sex scene, photographed in warm, glowing amber, with both men willing and present, is a much more sensual seduction, with the experienced Jack on top this time, suggesting that their relations are becoming more fluid, but Ang blushingly cuts away from it, and the closest his movie comes to exploring their evolving sexual relationship thereafter is when they reconnect after four years apart and, dispensing with the formalities, can hardly keep their hands off each other.
From the last we see of them together, Ennis remains incapable of expressing his feelings for Jack, so their physical interactions are imperative to show us how these two men who can’t communicate verbally are relating to each other, what keeps them drifting to Brokeback year after year. Body language must speak where words can’t. Ennis’ arm draped protectively, possessively over Jack is a fitting final echo of the first time they slept together, when he’d yanked it away defensively, but it doesn’t succeed in telling us everything we need to know. The fascination of watching their evolving relationship, their slow dance toward friendship, then love, is nearly severed at the source. Sex, that one essential need that pulls Ennis to Jack in the first place and makes the rest of their lives miserable because neither they nor society can cope with it, is gradually drained from their relationship altogether. At least we’re shut out from any further display of it, which is probably wise of the characters. The only two times they exhibit their passion openly they’re espied, first by Aguirre, later by Alma. In the film’s case, however, I’ll bet the conspicuous absence was motivated more by the director’s fear that too much evidence of their ardor would only turn off audiences. They would’ve been left with a sullied idea of the men’s relationship similar to Alma’s, on whom Ennis draws his fist when she seeks to taint the sanctity of his love for Jack with her smutty insinuations (“You don’t know nothin’ about it.”). No one could object to two men co-habitating in monastic chastity. Lee ends up shoving their sex lives back into the closet, hiding it away, as Jack does those two shirts he saves as a keepsake of their first time together. Like its main character, Brokeback Mountain ends up shying away from what’s really troubling it, as well.
The movie isn’t as controversial as its PR machine and the Hollywood pundits would lead one to believe. Not by half. Television talk shows drug such sordid sexual matters into the mainstream long ago. It’s not pushing the envelope to just reaffirm what Middle America already believes: sex is acceptable only in a monogamous relationship with a loving partner; mating is for life. Brokeback also reiterates what Hollywood love stories have always taught us, love matters more than anything and sanctifies all. Yet, rather than being shouted from the mountaintops, this kind of love becomes a dirty little secret that must be hidden away from the world in seedy motel rooms, or worse. When denied the fulfillment of a monogamous sexual relationship with Ennis, Jack begins seeking comfort in dimly lit back alleys, scenes Ang stages like a descent into the moral abyss. If that’s fodder for controversy it’s strictly for the religious right to debate over. Lee is preaching to the choir here.
Brokeback Mountain, like all Ang Lee’s films, is a deeply conservative movie that shines a light into the dark corners of an America increasingly crisscrossed with frazzled family ties, ties comprised of divorced parents, step children, orphans. With notions of the traditional nuclear family in a state of meltdown, the director (returning to the theme of his first smash, The Wedding Banquet) admonishes the moral hypocrisy of a country that looks down its nose on committed same sex unions, refusing to grant them legal sanction, thereby perpetuating fractured existences for lost souls seeking stability by forging some form of familial bond, people from broken homes like the orphaned Ennis and Jack, who’s estranged from his folks.
The two men come closest to settling down together that first summer on Brokeback, each easing into the role he’s most comfortable with, rather than abiding by the one society had assigned him. The boys trade up domestic cooking and cleaning duties, with Ennis, the surer shot, taking over Jack’s four hour commute to work, in order to bring home the bacon. Even their squabbles (“Where the hell you been? I been up with the sheep all day, I git down here, hungry as hell, and all I find is beans.”) sound eerily like the spats of an old married couple. An exchange of sexual favors seems the logical extension of this little domestic arrangement. Their summer atop the mountain proves a spiritual restorative for both these drifting men from broken homes, permitting them to more or less establish one of their own. But these shepherds in their pastoral Arcadia know it’s a reverie that can’t last (“I told you, it ain’t gonna be that way.”). They’re just woolgathering.
The mountain these men try to move ultimately proves unscalable, in the end breaking their spirits. Their last time on Brokeback would pretty much have been their last time, even if Jack hadn’t been killed. Ennis, who’d once said they’d have to stand ‘this thing’ in whose grip they’re caught up, for as long as they could ride it (a fitting metaphor for two old bronc busters), has sunk to his knees the final time we see the two together, crying that “I just can’t stand this anymore, Jack.” It’s the beginning of the end. Echoes of their first parting reverberate through their last like seismic tremors, but something vital has changed in the interim. Instead of swinging on Jack again, as he did the first time they went their separate ways, Ennis, his strength failing him, now collapses in his arms. Brokeback’s just too high to climb and too wide to circumvent, frustrating them from ever reaching the summit of their great romance.
Its total realization, in self acceptance and social sanction, proves eternally just out of reach, over the next ridge. They’re reaching for something too far off in the distance. Jack may sing that he’s king of the road upon learning that Ennis’ divorce has come through, but unlike his namesake, Jack Dawson in Titanic, whose poster art Brokeback’s was modeled after, he’ll never manage to ascend to the top of that mountain, to become king of the world. For some folks, fleeting moments of happiness can illuminate an entire lifetime. Not for Ennis and Jack. Their love will never grow old, as Emmy Lou Harris’ teardrop of a theme song (a brief snippet can be heard playing on Jack’s car radio) states, because it can never reach its logical climax and either continue to strengthen, or naturally fade. The quality time these men have spent together on Brokeback Mountain hasn’t amounted to a hill of beans. “You count the damn few times that we have been together in nearly twenty years and you measure the short f*ckin’ leash you keep me on, and then you ask me about Mexico and tell me you’ll kill me for needin’ something I don’t hardly never get,” a peppery Jack proclaims. Their stolen moments of bliss haven’t nearly been enough for the bloom to wear off a romance that was nipped in the bud. It’s the forbidden fruit that tastes the sweetest. Had they settled down together would their thirst for each other have been slaked, cooling as quickly as their marriages to Alma and Lureen do? Maybe, maybe not, but we’ll never know. Unlike other couples, they’re denied the inalienable human right to even try making a go of their relationship. Something’s over that never really began in the first place.
When people discuss Brokeback Mountain in terms of its controversy, it’s not the sex they’re talking about, but this political subtext. The lack of a framework for same sex unions is the problem Ennis and Jack can’t fix, what they have to stand. The movie suggests that some sort of contingency plan, a fail safe, should’ve been in place whereby these two men who are so in love could’ve been together, rather than apart, all those precious, wasted years miserable (Ennis ends up abusive, Jack a drunk) and making their families miserable to boot. By leaving the ending open, rather than trying to provide pat and easy answers to the questions it raises, Brokeback Mountain tries to do something far too few films have recently. It seeks to raise the moviegoer’s consciousness. Ennis and Jack may have had to endure their situation, unable to fix it, but the movie wants to send its audiences away asking themselves whether they shouldn’t start agitating for change, whether they shouldn’t start trying to fix the situation themselves. What Brokeback Mountain is really advocating, and what is making people so uneasy, is same sex marriage, whereby Ennis and Jack’s civil union would’ve been legally facilitated and legally protected, allowing these men to live together without fearing for their safety. It remains a hot button topic, but in terms of the film, it’s treated as a given as opposed to a point of conjecture. What Lee is getting at is not whether Ennis and Jack were right to suppress their sexuality, to conform to convention, but rather why they couldn’t just marry each other in the first place and save everyone the misery of their adulterous affair. For theirs is a deep and abiding love and, blasphemously, the movie grants it far more spiritual and emotional weight than the loveless bonds of matrimony each man enters into.
The irony suggests we’ve become too smug and self-righteous in our traditional notions concerning what constitutes a real marriage. We’ve become afraid to leave that comfort zone to embrace a more inclusive, democratic spectrum of love, even if not doing so flies in the face of the fundamental principals this country was founded on. Rugged individualism, the freedom to choose for oneself, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, etc. are privileges Americans are inclined to take for granted, until deprived of those selfsame rights, the way Ennis and Jack are. By concentrating on this one couple, forcing Ennis and Jack to stand in for countless others, Ang offers no alternative perspectives. His polemic is one-sided and editorial, but then it probably needs to be in order to win over audiences, the majority of whom don’t subscribe to his beliefs. Appealing to viewer’s hearts over their minds, by treating his subject humanely rather than politically, the director can’t help but persuade us to his way of thinking.
He’s managed to make a movie that’s refreshingly sentimental without succumbing to sappiness (this rugged environ mitigates against the saccharine) and political without being either preachy or didactic. The points Brokeback Mountain makes are interwoven so deftly into its subtext, they hardly register at conscious level. The director has set himself up as Confucius here, passing down his simple yet profound pearls of wisdom from somewhere on high. With such agit prop, he’s also harnessed his art like a sledge, to hammer the world into shape. Brokeback Mountain posits the most politically progressive message American cinema gave us all year, and what’s more, gets away with it, simply by couching it’s proposal in the most conservative context imaginable. One can’t help wondering if mainstream viewers who have responded to this film positively would be quite so open minded if the actors weren’t so appealing, if Ang were pulling for two guys who offended their sensibilities a bit more, perhaps two men of different races, nationalities, religions, as he did in his cult hit The Wedding Banquet. One wonders if Ang, who’s straight and from the conservative little island of Tawain, is even fully cognizant of what he’s wrought here (he’s claimed he didn’t plan Brokeback Mountain as a message movie). This film has positioned itself as the opening wedge in a political debate that’s bound to be stirred up as viewers too wary to see the movie in its original theatrical run encounter Brokeback Mountain’s message as it winds its way further into the nation’s conscience via DVD and cable release in the year’s to come. Considering how far it’s already inundated the pop culture, as the endless parodies attest, even without the majority of Americans yet having seen it, the implications are far reaching. The movie has even lent its title to the lexicon of English slang.
Are Ledger and Gyllenhaal, both of whom are straight, perfectly O.K. with being the new poster boys for butt buddy betrothals? Since when are straight men, liberal artists or not, so eager to advance a gay agenda that doesn’t really impact their own lifestyle choices one way or the other? It’s a gallant gesture, but I’m not certain I quite understand the motivation. Is it a desire to change the world for the better, or secure some personal renown for themselves? Perhaps a little bit of both? Despite all the idle chatter about their courage in tackling these roles, any publicity is good publicity in the celebrity world. While it comes close, I don’t think Brokeback Mountain is a great film. It’s too stately and austere for that. Ang’s too careful a craftsman to imbue this barb edged material with the indelicacy it requires. In addition, his slick professional style is all wrong. Brokeback Mountain is too glossy to convincingly capture the hardscrabble existence of rootless itinerants, the way rough-edged little gems like My Own Private Idaho (director Gus van Sant was actually attached to helm this picture at one point) or Boys Don’t Cry did. Too many of the compositions have a prepackaged look, like magazine adds for the Marlboro Man. Cut out, blown up, framed, and airbrushed, they made great “for your consideration” spreads in Variety. Brokeback Mountain, essentially an art-house indie which advocates bucking convention, has been crafted in the most slickly mainstream, conventional manner imaginable. A controversial film of integrity can’t help but lose its indie cred when it can be so embraced by the mainstream that it’s nominated for eight Academy Awards. There’s something terribly wrong with this picture, and it’s called selling out to the court of public opinion.
Critics and audiences seem so hungry for tangible proof that American films can still do what they could always do better than anyone, craft a “sweeping Hollywood love story” (so state the movie’s misleading T.V. ads, which plaster those words over images of the men with the women in their lives), that they’re praising Brokeback Mountain’s modest merits out of all proportion. Film criticism occasionally suffers from a conflict of interest. Critics want to see well-meaning movies do well, especially when their heart is in the right place. They want to give films that set out to change people for the better a helping hand up, so frequently champion good, but not great, movies like Brokeback Mountain as much for their lofty intentions than for how successfully they realize those aims.
Giving an old-fashioned love story about unrequited love a modern day political Twist doesn’t make it any less old-fashioned, especially when the last half goes to extremes to avoid anything too terribly daring or confrontational, sending audiences away secure about sympathizing with characters who aren’t seen doing anything they shouldn’t be. That first provocative sex scene has the raw intensity to send a jolt through the audience, akin to the effect Last Tango in Paris purportedly had 32 years ago, but nothing thrown at us after the guys descend the mountain even comes close to equaling what occurred atop it. Like that unexpected punch Ennis throws Jack, the movie is knocked off balance by the blindside, and never quite regains its footing. For a few precious soaring moments of screen time, the American cinema was thrown off its axis, but the melancholy melodrama soon falls back into well worn grooves.
Ultimately, we end up spending less time with these guys alone together than we do with them as they live out their sad, compromised lives with their families, in order to allow straight viewers easier access into this story, I suppose. It’s a shame, because these scenes offer us nothing we haven’t seen hundreds of times before in other venues. Fights over whose job takes precedence, who’s the master of the house, bills, in-laws, kids, it’s all too tiresome. Sexual deviancy never seemed so depressingly mundane. When Ennis sacrifices precious time with Jack in favor of visitation rights with his daughters, the movie comes perilously close to resolving itself into a homosexual Stella Dallas, Brokeback Mountain as Fannie Hurst’s Back Street for the bent crowd. Though the unobtrusive direction keeps things pared down to their bare essentials, insuring that the movie never quite sinks to the level of soap opera, a truly great gay love story warrants something more substantial than hoary old heterosexual hand-me-downs.
With all the ad blurbs about ticket buyers “sharing their stories,” as if they were Holocaust survivors, the movie seems poised to be exploited as a cathartic national experience, like Roots – glorified group therapy. Such marketing plays the sexual orientation equivalent of the race card. Moviegoers too narrow minded to give this dollop of philanthropy a fair shake might as well write themselves off as confirmed homophobes. People are responding to Brokeback Mountain, or we’re being told they’re responding to it (despite setting box office records in limited engagements, it’s only performed moderately well in nationwide release), as if it were saying something truly novel, expressing something fundamental that we’d always known, but no one had ever quite had the gumption to put into words before.
Of course what the movie has to say has been said before, in bits and pieces, though perhaps never in such archetypal American terms, and by world class films every bit as fine, like Maurice; The Crying Game; The Conformist; Sunday, Bloody Sunday; Making Love; Far From Heaven; Chuck and Buck; The Lost Language of Cranes; For a Lost Soldier; In and Out; Oliver Stone’s overly ambitious Alexander, and Ang’s own, aforementioned The Wedding Banquet. Brokeback Mountain is Death in Venice, relocated to the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains. Both share an aching longing for something exquisitely beautiful but eternally out of reach, an obscure object of desire. In Brokeback, that’s Jack’s dream deferred, for a fuller life lived with Ennis, rather than apart from him. It’s all so fatalistic and angst ridden. Nobody tries to commit suicide in order to expiate their sin like they used to in movies of this sort (The Children’s Hour, Ode to Billy Joe, Maedchen in Uniform, Sex in Chains, etc.), but by cutting himself off so completely from life, Ennis may as well have. His becomes a life denied. It’s not the movies that are changing so much as the times we’re living in. The major difference is that the films that preceded Brokeback Mountain next to never circulated as far beyond the art house as it has, reaching a responsive mainstream audience, gaining widespread popular appeal. The simple fact that Brokeback didn’t tank is going to change the way Hollywood views once touchy subject matter like this for some time to come. Audiences have occasionally been asked to sympathize with the plight of tortured homosexuals, but Brokeback is the first film to expect us to fully identify with it, to put ourselves in the same position. In an industry where obsessive same sex attraction is most often depicted in terms of homicidal horror (Swoon, Murder by Numbers, Heavenly Creatures, Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Monster, Deathtrap), it’s the first gay love story to fully draw us in without pushing us, at some gut level, to an objective emotional distance. Thanks largely to Ang’s sensitive treatment and the two appealing leads, with whom audiences have proven themselves willing to take this journey, it’s become the first to sweep moviegoers away with its scope, sensitivity and passion. Brokeback doesn’t do what it purports to be doing, that is, expanding the movie making lexicon, but it is breaking the ice with mainstream audiences by inducing them to accept an overtly homosexual theme in a way they’ve never really dared to before. As a movie however, rather than a shared public experience, Brokeback could only be called courageous from a producer’s standpoint, in which millions of dollars in revenue are riding on its ability to appeal to the widest cross section of ticket buyers imaginable. Scandalous sexual content has never been detrimental to a movie’s appeal. Sex and violence are the twin titans Hollywood traffics in. They’re the broke backbone of the industry. Any true gamble on the film’s possible appeal was sidestepped by the shrewd casting of Ledger and Gyllenhaal, two of young Hollywood’s fast rising heartthrobs, both with dedicated female fan bases that would be sure to turn out to see them in a sensitive, weepy love story (with Oscar-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla strumming those few notes on his guitar as if plucking at the heartstrings), no matter that their romance is with each other (all the better, there’s no annoying female to come between the viewer and her fantasies), and to drag the reticent men in their lives along for the ride. It’s Hollywood’s first non-heterosexual woman’s film, and in that regard it represents something new and different too, though I wouldn’t contend that advances the art form to any appreciable degree. Rather than being controversial, Brokeback Mountain has become the season’s great date movie. It’s a commercialized, four-hankie chick flick, which helps to explain why the story goes soft when it should be hard hitting. By movie’s end, it’s begun throwing its punches like a little girl. Dramatically, the movie slips up badly only a few times. Those Hell’s Angels types Ennis trounces at the fireworks display are overdrawn as broadly as silent movie villains, while the jowly L.D. Newsome seems to have strayed in from some Warner Bros. cartoon of the 40’s, in which smugly self-satisfied, cigar chomping plutocrats were always called J.P., and frequently played by bulldogs. I could’ve done without the romantic montage of Ennis and Jack horsepacking over the too picturesque terrain like The Searchers, but since it’s merely inserted as a time-lapse device, I’ll let it slide. Another scene however is unforgivable. It was obvious enough that Ennis was missing Jack without him pulling a Vertigo on us, flipping Alma face down to stand in place of his lost love. Ang proceeds to add insult to injury with a garish jump cut to Jack rodeoing, which is just cringe inducingly transparent. Ride ‘em, cowboy!
I think the three main leads are a bit too callow for their parts, too young to really weather the passage of time convincingly, but I won’t make much of that since Williams disappears before many years have passed, Heath was always stiff and, so, ages gracefully into the swollen joints of an old man, and Gyllenhaal, with his whimsical dreams (“It could be like this, just like this, always.”), is never meant to really grow up. Still, they lack old souls, the kind required to convincingly embody the profundity of time lost and potential squandered. They’re like little kids playing dress up, and that ain’t right. No degree of skillful acting, and there’s plenty of that in evidence here, can compensate for the intrinsic deficiency of inexperience.
Point of fact, the passage of time hardly registers at all in the film, which is odd given the ambitious, decades-spanning canvas. Perhaps the point is that bedrock conservative Midwestern enclaves change little and reluctantly, that the world we live in today isn’t so very different than the one which quashed this romance (some things will never change). But the narrative, which plays like an overly earnest, though no less episodic, variant on Same Time, Next Year, could use the help of clear cut art direction (Judy Becker was the production designer, Laura Ballinger the co-art director) and costume design (by Marit Allen) to ensure we always stay oriented to precisely when and where we are at any given point.
As Ennis and Jack part for the final time, and the latter flashes back to his most romantic memory, when he was once rocked gently and serenaded by his lover, for a moment I thought Jack had simply shaved off his mustache and we were still in the present. In addition, this wistful trace of what might have been is a strategically misplaced scene. We should’ve been shown it earlier if it’s recall is expected to have the same emotional impact on us as it does on him. As is, we can’t fathom why it does since these men have been shown clutching on each other the entire film through. This all-important embrace by the campfire which means so much to Jack has been negated by scenes such as Ennis lying in his lover’s arms, post-coital, basking in the afterglow. Ennis, who’s so uneasy demonstrating affection! A man like this would never be caught dead doing something like that. Straight guys don’t kiss.
The scenes of Ennis and Jack restlessly roaming Brokeback on their annual getaways become repetitious, since their relationship doesn’t evolve much, peaking early and leveling off soon after. Like the mountain itself, it remains fixed, never really going anywhere. As time wears on, and wears them down, it’s not just the sex that vanishes from their relationship, but the sense of abandon and elation that they used to feel in each other’s presence as well. They just seem tired and deflated. The years have eroded away their spirits. The movie ends with the men in their late 30’s, but they seem at least two decades older.
There’s a sense of loss here, and of languor, but, apart from that first sex scene and their reunion later, there’s no real sense of urgency, no sense of trying to beat the clock. The movie unfolds at a deliberate, stately pace. As Ennis and Jack vainly struggle to escape the holes they’ve dug for themselves, through periodic altercations with their families and each other, the middle scenes just sort of meander, coasting on the beauty of the scenery, until that final, fateful encounter in the winter of their discontent, when the pair opens up a Pandora’s box full of regret and bitter recriminations, everything they’d kept silent about all those years.
“You got a better idea?” Ennis challenges, when Jack expresses dissatisfaction with their dead end relationship. Jack’s devastating response- “I did once…we could’ve had a good life together, a f*ckin’ real good life. Had us a place of our own. But you didn’t want it Ennis. So what we got now is Brokeback Mountain! Everything’s built on that. That’s all we got, boy, f*ckin’ all. So I hope you know that if you don’t never know the rest!” The passage of time must register in the film because that’s really what it’s all about, squandered time, precious moments ticked away and lost forever (“There’s never enough time, never enough,” Jack quietly grieves). Time is of the essence. As the years march relentlessly on, the life these men might’ve made together slipping further and further out of reach, the movie is suffused with a sense of tragedy, of loss.
Both try to retard the aging process by chasing after the intangible ghosts of their youth. Jack, whose mother keeps his room preserved precisely as he left it when he was a boy, never evolves beyond that life altering nineteenth summer, his emotional development as seemingly arrested as Ennis’ life. Wishing to remain at liberty so that he can jaunt off to the mountains at a moment’s notice, Ennis, for his part, restlessly hops from job to job, unwilling to settle down, to secure the type of steady, gainful employment that would permit him to support his family properly. It’s almost as if these two, who spend their lives just marking time until their next vacation, were trying to stave off growing up. Such behavior actually tends to encourage the view of homosexuality as an immature form of sexual experimentation one should grow out of. Ennis and Jack can measure their moments of contentment in “the d*mn few times that we have been together in nearly twenty years,” and seem to be storing away the best years of their lives for later, when they can share them.
Ultimately, however, these middle-aged men can’t hold back the hands of time any better than they can hold onto each other. They’re constantly being separated by a world that never intended them to be together in the first place, and has been trying to keep them apart ever since. Even on Brokeback, Ennis had to abandon Jack every night to return to the flock (“You sleep with the sheep, 100% percent,” were their instructions). As the hourglass empties, Brokeback Mountain resolves itself into a requiem for their dream. What’s curious is that, though the years fly by and the world changes, homosexuality never seems to become more visible on the cultural landscape, or modify Ennis and Jack’s view of their feelings for one another or the seemingly insurmountable odds of their situation. Even rugged individualists who bear no allegiance to the gay community (both men claim not to be queer and stick by that story their entire lives; they never address the reality of what it is they’re actually doing) should still demonstrate some awareness of its existence. They can’t just ignore it, especially not when their problems are so closely interrelated.
After all, this movie ends in the 80’s, on the brink of the AIDS epidemic, long after Stonewall, disco, the whole shebang. None of that is reflected in the film. It might as well be the Eisenhower era. The movie’s scope in this regard is far too blinkered and narrow. Even small towns aren’t completely insulated from the wider world around them. Not in this age of telecommunications. Ennis and Jack don’t just suffer in silence, they suffer in a vacuum, which makes no sense at all. This is Wyoming, not Neverland. Brokeback Mountain lurches beyond American myth in this regard. It lapses into fable. It takes the exact opposite tact of Same Time, Next Year, which followed an adulterous heterosexual couple as they reunited for their annual trysts over a twenty-six year period. Each time we caught up with them again, the vast changes in fashion and culture playing out on the national landscape were directly reflected in their dress and attitude. Not so here. Brokeback is a period piece that doesn’t want to date itself or its timeless tale. It wants to be both one love story and every love story, both individualistic and iconic, but as its leading character comes to find, you can’t play both sides of the fence. Brokeback Mountain is set in the 60’s and 70’s, a time of sweeping change in this country, but the heartland appears completely unfazed and untouched by it all. Like its sentiments regarding same sex marriage, the movie brushes on social progress without really connecting it with the larger historical context. Alma, who rebels against her husband’s authority by becoming the family breadwinner, and the strident, sexually aggressive Lureen, who proves to have a better head for business than Jack, are meant to reflect the birth of the insurgent feminist movement, much as Jack’s acknowledging the possibility of the Army drafting him is a roundabout reference to Vietnam, which was just heating up at the time.
The idea of Jack as a Jarhead, like the one Jake Gyllenhaal played in the Sam Mendes film (and which, placed back to back with Brokeback impressively displays his complete yin and yang), also broaches on a more contemporary military controversy – “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a policy whose impracticality is directly reflected in the men’s own situation – they squander a lifetime not saying the things that should be aired in the open. What seems tightly wound in the terse outline of short story form, is exposed as threadbare when expanded to epic length. Ang, Ossana, and McMurtry are trying to say far too much here, to cover three decades of change, with only the sparest of outlines to work with. A theme can only be stretched so far before it snaps back in on itself. The pinch beneath the sprawl remains discernible.
Filmmakers frequently fall into the trap of being too faithful to their source material when adapting critically vaunted or widely beloved literature to the screen. In this case, far too much justice is done a rawboned story that harbored no delusions of grandeur to begin with. Brokeback Mountain becomes much more pretentious than it need be. Every laboriously over-composed master shot tells us the moviemakers are seeking to craft a modern day classic out of this roughshod material. The art of short story writing is molded to men of few words, like Ennis. The less said, the more powerful the impact. Too often Brokeback telegraphs its exchanges with smoke signals, when it should remain reserved and enigmatic, more like the character it commemorates. Clunkers like Jack’s “I’m not you. I can’t make it on one or two high altitude f*cks a year,” and Alma’s “Jack Twist? Jack Nasty,” could easily have been pruned for the better (both were lifted directly from Proulx). The sentiments behind them are genuine enough, but the words sound phony when they’re spoken out loud. The film may focus on inarticulate ranch hands, but we in the audience know bad lines when we hear them, thank you kindly. Such howlers lend no credence to the movie’s contention that it’s better to say what’s on your mind.
Conversely, slurs that should be tossed about freely, both in earnest and in jest, in this part of the country, are never uttered here. The homophobic climate that keeps these men living the lie never really rears its ugly head except in the abstract, and in flashback. Though Ennis fears people have guessed his secret (as well they should, you can’t keep secrets in a small town), we never see this reflected in the way they behave or treat him; no one ever calls him out on it. He seems to have no interaction with his neighbors at all. Even those few folks who do catch on, such as his wife, Jack’s parents and Aguirre, convey their disapproval so tastefully it could almost pass for tolerance. And blunt, plain speaking mid-Westerners aren’t exactly renowned for their tact or diplomacy. In trying to indicate paranoia and repression, the movie instead infers restraint and refinement, and that goes against the grain of this environment. Brokeback Mountain’s greatest strength lies in its ability to suggest things that needn’t be baldly stated, Lee’s nimbleness at intimating, without being explicit. But that very quality flies in the face of what the film has to tell us about the importance of freely speaking out, of not being afraid to openly express yourself, consequences be damned. It’s a film about repression so dogged by its own fears of how it will be received by the public, that it constantly seems to be holding back, lest it go too far and alienate its audience. It’s too tightly controlled, self-contained. Such cautiousness is counterproductive.
Writing about men who can’t verbalize their feelings, and spend their entire lives idling because of that, may be a fascinating literary exercise, but onscreen it doesn’t make for the most thrilling entertainment. Proulx’s barbed, wiry ramble has been opened up, but it doesn’t really have anywhere to go because it is, at heart, a psychological character study. The real drama is all in these people’s heads. Brokeback Mountain’s a chamber film, no, a closet film, that’s been loosed on the great outdoors. Even potentially exciting scenes, involving lightning and hail storms, Ennis’ unexpected encounter with a bear, or even Alma’s abrupt discovery of her husband’s relationship with Jack, peter out, rather than being built up. Trailing off, they become as abbreviated as the men’s great romance. Brokeback Mountain proves a square film in the most literal sense of that word. Cinematically, Lee ends up conscientiously working to box in his frame. He begins by fiddling with the limiting conventions of the medium, striving for an ambitious 10-gallon hat trick by wedding the testosterone-driven Western to its antithetical opposite, the Romance, and the epic form to the intimate drama, but, unfortunately, fails to truly subvert any of these genres by the juxtaposition.
His aesthetic aspirations remain unreconciled, at surface level. One can appreciate what he’s striving to accomplish, but it doesn’t pan out the way one would wish. All he really succeeds in doing is driving the time honored Western format into new range, one of the few untrammeled grazing lands still left open to it in the wake of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and Space Cowboys. Just as Brokeback Mountain is neither romance nor Western, social tract nor melodrama, defying classification, thinking of it in terms of your traditional epic is just as much of a misnomer. As an epic, the film only comes to full fruition during those scenes of the men alone together on the mountain, marking it, if anything, as a feverishly intimate epic of isolation, like Lawrence of Arabia, Cast Away, Gerry or Open Water. Instead of sending out a cattle call for a cast of thousands, the filmmakers have rounded up a flock of milling sheep. It’s hard to work up the requisite enthusiasm, even when the larger than life scenery keeps telling us we should be overwhelmed. The director remains a minimalist at heart.
This then is why Brokeback Mountain pulls up just shy of being a great movie. It hamstrings itself, its worst failing, even superseding this designation as an epic of isolation, to become an epic of entrapment. The movie isn’t well rounded, but Ang can’t be blamed. It’s the nature of the material he’s working with. I don’t think such a minute screen reading of roped off existences would make for a masterpiece in anybody’s hands, and Ang’s approach is certainly more skillful than most. Modeling his cinematic technique after the musical score, most of which was composed before the movie was even shot and employs a method known as “negative sound,” the lingering notes of which, in Santaollala’s words, create space, tension, a sense of longing, of waiting, the director brilliantly uses spatial dynamics to accentuate his central paradigm, contrasting the airy mountain scenes (secluded in the wilderness, an entire world of possibilities seems to open up for Ennis and Jack), with the stifling environments they must inhabit below.
What throws Brokeback Mountain off is its concentration on the latter, rather than the liberating love affair, a focus which, of necessity, serves to hem far too much of the film in visually. It’s like watching half of a movie in the vastness of widescreen and the other half panned and scanned, then cropped to fit the dimensions of a television. Like its two leads, the movie keeps trying to break out of this boxiness, to the freedom stretching away toward the horizon beyond. Like them it fails. Baited by the spacious visuals dangled before us, we’re kept on pins and needles, just as Jack is, and left every bit as disappointed, frustratingly unfulfilled in fact, after being set up to anticipate an eventuality that never comes to pass. Brokeback Mountain fails to fully spiral out, remaining a tightly coiled cinematic tease. We’re left dangling, waiting for the next note that never comes. As with the musical spaces Santaolalla creates, Ang uses his negative cinematic spaces as positive ones, visually closing this movie in, in order to evoke sympathy pains from the viewer, a claustrophobic desperation for roominess, the open air, to put us in the same frame of mind as his closeted characters.
Brokeback Mountain taunts us with its expansive, unbounded panoramas, which take full advantage of the dimensions of the wide screen, as a means of emphasizing, by contrast, the tragedy of Ennis’ own shriveled existence. The vast landscapes encapsulate the very emancipation he’s deprived of. The notion of ‘gay cowboys,’ pales in comparison to the aesthetic paradox Ang’s working through here. The movie’s spine is left snapped in half between the lingering power of its far ranging first half and the loping longing of its last, during which the spatial allotments are severely sectioned off. But in hoping that Brokeback will somehow recapture the visual scope that it titillated us with early on (it never does), we end up pining for that liberating lost summer as forcefully as the men do, which actually works in the movie’s favor. It helps us identify with their operatic struggle all the more.
Shuttering the lens and shutting the frame in, violating viewers’ spatial sensitivities, seems the only way Ang could totally realize his grandiose thematic vision. Lee succeeds in doing what he sets out to, but the advisability of his approach remains debatable. Brokeback Mountain may be the freak fluke where this conceptual idea works perfectly, making the film’s biggest cinematic failing double as its greatest success, but as an experiment it seems like a dead end. Turning the movie in on itself, enclosing it, would seem to be apropos to the nature of the medium, and yet in no other medium could the very abnegation of those wide open spaces be made so keenly felt than on the big screen. It seems the height of irony to observe that, cinematically speaking, Brokeback Mountain fulfills its aims by fencing itself in, fencing itself in exactly as Ennis does. ~3/2006