Written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana
Directed by Ang Lee
Starring Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway
Jack Twist: I wish I knew how to quit you.
Before the accolades began falling around Ang Lee’s modern western, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, hype had already planted its spurs into the public’s anticipation. It was becoming known as “The Gay Cowboy Movie.” Yes, it’s gay and yes, the leads are cowboys, but that title doesn’t do justice to the love that grows between these two men throughout the span of a twenty-year period. A love that lasts that long despite every challenge is the foundation of a good home. It cannot be explained or defined; it merely is. The fact that it is between two men is not relevant. All that matters is that the love itself lives on and the two affected by that pull are man enough to face it.
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is a quiet film that takes place in a simpler time. Conversations don’t run long or deep; the buildings in town are no more than two stories high; and work involves using your hands when you can find it. And if you were a man, you made sure you found that work to ensure having enough money to raise the family you were about to create. There was no time to waste wondering about where your life could take you as the life that you had brought with it certain responsibilities. If that meant herding sheep up on Brokeback Mountain all summer, then you made sure you were the first in line to get that job. The first two in line for the job here are Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, respectively).
Ennis and Jack meet each other in silence outside an office where they await work orders. And though they say nothing until they both have the job and are sharing a drink in celebration, they sneak glances when the other isn’t looking. It isn’t long before they’re on the mountain, a mountain of immense beauty with lively rivers and protective forestry. The sheep they are herding move up the mountain in waves and flow like the river they walk alongside. And once the two men, their dog and the hundreds of sheep have reached their camp, the foundation of love begins to be laid down. Amidst the purity of the nature that surrounds them, something innately natural begins to emerge, tying these two men together in a way they had never expected. They build themselves a home without even realizing, as one tends to the camp all day while the other goes out to labour with the sheep. When Jack no longer wants to eat beans, Ennis makes sure to get soup despite his distaste for it. When Ennis cuts his head after being thrown from his horse, Jack is there with a wet towel to wipe away the blood. Their caring is shown through actions that come without thinking. They may not be able to verbalize the compassion one has for the other but the words aren’t necessary anyway. The trust they build opens the door for the men to share about their past lives and future hopes, neither having felt this safe with someone else before. And as their intimacy deepens, they are seen wearing less clothing, lingering longer before looking away until, on one cold night, Ennis joins Jack in the tent for a night that changes their lives forever.
It is one thing to walk around all day after you’ve had sex the night before when you weren’t expecting to. It is a whole other thing when you’ve had that sex with someone of the same sex when you didn’t think that was who you were. And it is yet another thing entirely when that someone is someone you care about. This turmoil can be read all over the face of Ennis, played with a fierce stoicism by Ledger whose silence screams how deeply he internalizes his confusion. Jack on the other hand, will not say how much he loves Ennis but will sing loud and proud about his happiness. And though the two will reach an understanding that their lives are not complete without each other, the complicated nature of their relationship creates a direct contrast to the simplicity that surrounds them. Consequently, this complexity seeps into their regular every day lives, threatening everything they’ve worked for.
The women of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN give varied perspectives on how it was to be married to Ennis and Jack throughout all those years. As Ennis’ wife, Alma, Michelle Williams, in a revelatory and eruptive performance, looks used and defeated as the years press on. She is introduced as boisterous and as a lover who might actually have a chance of getting into Ennis’ heart. In time, the obvious nature of Ennis’ relationship with Jack becomes as impossible to ignore as her disgust is to put into words. In drastic contrast, Jack’s marriage to Lureen (Anne Hathaway) is transactional. Neither feigns any love for the other and both are content with their arrangement. In fact, Jack has found a woman man enough to rationalize being married to a woman. Lureen’s lack of interest in her husband leaves Hathaway with a cold, distant performance while Williams’ performance is fueled by so many inner conflicts – love for her husband, hatred for his infidelity, disgust over his homosexuality, fear for her future and her children’s future – that she always looks unsettled, tense and desperate.
Outside world left outside, Lee’s love story is both tender and tragic. Gustavo Santaolalla’s somber acoustic guitar score carries you gently along for the journey as it exposes all the trappings life has to offer. Ennis himself says it best when he says, “If you can’t fix it, you gotta stand it.” And this certainly applies to his career of unsteady work or loveless marriage. Jack knows better though. Jack knows that Ennis and him have what it takes to have the good life, that they’re love is the kind that everyone wishes they had. Theirs is a love is that helps you through your problems if you let it grow but it is also a love that brings you nothing but trouble if you keep it all boxed up.
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is an important film and one that I’ve been looking forward to all year. It is a film that transcends its homosexual imagery, allowing for the communication of the basic elements of the story to reach the viewer, any viewer. I took a deep breath before watching in an attempt to remove some of my expectations but I’m glad to say that it was everything I had hoped for it to be. Lee has created a benchmark film about how love can take hold of any two people at any time. I cried three times before the credits ran and was barely able to speak after the lights came up. My big, tall cowboy hat is off to you, Mr. Lee.