2005. Directed by Ang Lee. Starring Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, Michelle Williams, Randy Quaid, and Linda Cardellini.
I can’t imagine a recent movie that looks more distinctly American than Brokeback Mountain, so it’s tickling to note that the film was shot in Canada, by a Taiwanese director. But, then, Brokeback is full of subversions, both in terms of genre and characterization. Ang Lee shoots Wyoming (well, Alberta) with the same austerity with which he shot Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the land has the same lively glow that infused his Sense and Sensibility with wonder. The landscape—stoic, harsh, breathtaking but also brutal—has a life of its own, and Lee treats the mountains and sweeping panorama with reverence. Brokeback has grandeur and expanse, and the stories within it are writ large, like myths or classical tragedy.
And the movie is a classical tragedy. Its heroes are doomed from the start, each undone by a tragic flaw. The tragic flaw, by the way, isn’t that Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) are gay—or, at least, bisexual—but rather their unwillingness to accept their homosexuality. Ennis says to his lover Jack that “if we can’t fix it, Jack, we have to stand it.” Their love for each other is beautiful, but it’s clear from Ennis’s words that their love is a burden neither is quite willing to face.
Jack Twist, despite bearing a name that’s fitting for a gay porn flick, isn’t as out and about as the Queer Eye guys. But he looks that way in comparison to Ennis, whose reticence makes Dick Cheney seem gregarious. At first, Ledger’s stark mumble—like the low roar of an old lion—annoyed me. Thirty minutes into the movie, however, I got it. His voice isn’t a dimwitted affectation, but an attempt to beat down his raging impulses. Every word he says sounds like he’s strangling himself. In a way, he is. Everyone he loves, from his long-suffering wife (the terrific Michelle Williams) to Jack to his daughters to an after-marriage girlfriend (Linda Cardellini), tries to get Ennis to speak his pain, to connect with them somehow. Williams even baits him into almost beating her, at a Thanksgiving dinner that’s as tense as hot barbed wire; she’s that desperate to see into his soul.
Ennis and Jack internalize everything they have every right to feel. In the brief, furtive, almost violent sex scene they share, the clandestine couple radiates eroticism. When they kiss in secret, the experience combines extreme joy with the overwhelming pain that they can’t do this in public. It’s so painful that it’s hard to watch. They hide their true selves from the world so deeply and convincingly that it’s a rush of (brief) joy when we see them return, often and then less often over the years, to Brokeback Mountain. It’s the one place where they feel free to love each other, and it’s the one place where the film’s mood is lightened.
That lightness of touch is important. Brokeback’s wit is as softspoken as Jack when he comes on to Ennis, but it’s there. Their interplay, particularly during the sheep drive that consumes the first third of the picture, is filled with the quiet jokes of new lovers testing out each other’s personalities. Gyllenhaal, all bounce and joviality and dancing blue eyes, is a marvel. An aspiring rodeo cowboy, the character is naturally outlandish and outgoing. His indignation at his work circumstances—herding sheep around a mountain in defiance of the law—makes him do a slow burn that’s funnier with every minute. Running jokes—his growing hatred of beans for every meal; his slipshod harmonica playing—work because Gyllenhaal rushes headlong into the character. There’s no sense of irony or intentional camp. Sure, he wears ironed denim shirts on sheep drives, but it’s a mark of attempted dignity, not a nudge-nudge wink-wink to the audience. Ledger, as straight man (yes, pun intended) to Gyllenhaal’s hijinks, gets laughs from grimaces, low growls, and slow-drawled sentences that are nevertheless quick-witted. Both actors are marvelous.
When hiking and loving on Brokeback Mountain, we see the best, funniest, most passionate selves of these two. It’s frustrating and sad, for them and for the audience, that we don’t see them this way at any other time. (I don’t think Ennis cracks one joke to his wife in the film.) We don’t hope for them to become gay stereotypes, with leather chaps and lisps, but we want them to be themselves. The fact that Lee doesn’t allow them to devolve into camp is praiseworthy, but he sometimes swings too far in the other direction. Throughout the movie, he’s shown that these two are red-blooded Americans—hell, they probably voted for Nixon—so the scene in which Ennis beats up two miscreants as Independence Day fireworks burst above him is overkill. A Thanksgiving dinner scene in which Jack finally stands up to his father-in-law is a funny crowd pleaser, but it’s unnecessary. We’ve already seen, from their hard work, from their dedication to their families, from their gorgeous stoicism (Real cowboys have beerbellies, folks. Sorry to break it to you.), that Jack and Ennis are as American as John Wayne.
Critics have snidely suggested that Jack and Ennis could have just as well moved to San Francisco, and been done with all the anxiety. After all, Brokeback begins in 1963, and moves on into the 1980s. There’s no need for such melodramatic conventions as unrequited—or, rather, unexhibited—love. This view, of course, is utter nonsense. By showing Jack and Ennis so thoroughly engrossed in their livelihoods and their communities, we see how connected they are to the landscape, to the worlds they grew up in. It’s condescending to think they could just leave, and find something else to do with their jobs, in the same way that’s patronizing to think an asthmatic stockbroker could just, you know, leave Wall Street and move to Akron, Ohio. Jack and Ennis love the worlds they inhabit. Hell, they even love their wives and children. These aren’t guys hip to the disco crowd, or who even know what disco is. Asking them move is to impose a 21st-century viewpoint on characters who wouldn’t have been familiar with Gay Pride. Their social isolation, whether unconscious or self-imposed, is part of what makes Brokeback Mountain work.
Ang Lee’s entire career—from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to The Ice Storm to Hulk—has been one measuring the lengths to which we’ll go to isolate ourselves from human touch and connection. Brokeback Mountain is no exception. It’s the most passionate love story of 2005, all the more so because the passion is so muted that it suffocates the lovers. Gay or straight, you’ll understand it.