Friday Film Focus: Brokeback Mountain

Since the release of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, the film has often been described as “a gay cowboy movie” — which in itself is a cruel simplification. Do me a favor: See the movie first and make your judgments later. It is a story of a time and place where two men are forced to deny the only great passion either one will ever feel. Their tragedy is quite universal — as many have been embroiled in the throes of forbidden love. Ennis (played by the late and incredible Heath Ledger) tells Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) about something he saw as a child. “There were two old guys shacked together. They were the joke of the town, even though they were pretty tough old birds.” One day they were found beaten to death. Ennis says: “My dad, he made sure me and my brother saw it. For all I know, he did it.”

The story begins in 1963, when ranch boss Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid) hires Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar to herd sheep up on Wyoming’s Brokeback Mountain. Ennis is a man of few words. He learned to be guarded and fearful long before he knew what he feared. Jack, who talks about nothing but his rodeo training, is a little more outgoing. After some days have passed on the mountain, the boys get drunk off whiskey and suddenly have sex. Jack gives the impression of experience. For Ennis however, this is nothing he’s done before. The movie wisely never steps back to look at the larger picture. It is specifically the story of these men and the love they share. That’s how Jack and Ennis see it. “You know I ain’t queer,” Ennis tells Jack after their first night together. “Me neither,” says Jack.

Lee and gifted cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto transform the beautiful writing of Annie Prouix into expansive visual poetry. Shooting primarily in Alberta, Canada, Lee avoids postcard prettiness to find the beauty and terror in nature. It mirrors the vivid and sometimes violent relationship between the two men. “It’s nobody’s business but ours,” Jack tells Ennis. But of course, he’s wrong. Joe spots both of them on the mountain and refuses to hire them again.

Some years pass and both men get married. Ennis marries Alma (the glorious Michelle Williams) and has two daughters. Jack moves to Texas, marries Lureen (Anne Hathaway) and has a son. Living a lie is easier than dealing with the truth. At least this is the case for Ennis. When Jack goes to visit him, the undiminished urgency of their passions become rekindled. Ennis can’t contain his excitement. Running down the steps to greet his friend, he collides with Jack’s body — kissing him fiercely while Jack returns the heat. Alma sees it from the window. Without any dialogue, Lee creates a whole world that can be read eloquently and movingly on the faces of the actors. Their lives settle down into a routine, punctuated less often than Jack would like by “fishing trips.” Alma says nothing about it for a long time because nothing in her background prepares her for what she’s found out about her husband. There are gentle and nuance portraits of both wives, who are ultimately seen as victims.

Jack is able to accept a little more willingly that he is inescapably gay. He thinks him and Ennis might someday buy themselves a ranch and settle down. Ennis remembers what he saw as a boy: “If this thing gets hold of us at the wrong time and wrong place, we’re dead.” As a result, he forbids himself happiness with the one person he has ever truly loved.

Brokeback Mountain could tell its story and not necessarily be such a great film. It could have been a melodrama or even just a “gay cowboy movie.” However, the filmmakers have focused so intently on the characters themselves that the movie can apply to everyone. Both Mr. Ledger and Mr. Gyllenhaal make this anguished love story physically palpable. Mr. Ledger magically and mysteriously disappears beneath the skin of his lean, troubled character. His acting is a miracle, as the internal strife seems to gnaw at him from his insides. Ledger knows how Ennis moves, speaks, listens, and breathes. It is a great screen performance — as good as the best of Marlon Brando or Sean Penn.

The pain and disappointment of Jack, who is softer and more self-accepting, continually registers in Mr. Gyllenhaal’s sad eyes. The second half of this movie follows both men’s slowly crumbling marriages. Alma, choking on her own pain, eventually leaves Ennis. As Jack has casual encounters with other men, Lureen slowly calcifies into a clenched robotic shell of her entitled younger self. Brokeback Mountain isn’t quite the period piece that some would like to imagine, but lets not kid ourselves. In large segments of American society — especially in sports and military — those doors remain sealed. Yet, Brokeback Mountain is ultimately not about sex (there is very little of it in the film). It’s about love; Love stumbled into, love thwarted, and love held sorrowfully in the heart.

Image Source: Film Linc