Directed by Ang Lee. 2005.
Reviewed by Howard Schumann and Patrick Bliss
Set in Wyoming in the early 60s, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) meet when they are both young ranch hands working together protecting a flock of sheep in the Brokeback Mountains. One is garrulous and outgoing, the other inarticulate and repressed. Heath Ledger's performance has been critically acclaimed and it is strong. He captures the confusion, the longing, and the profound sadness of a person who has been living a lie. Though proclaiming they are not "queer", the two men form a relationship that expresses itself in a sudden physical intercourse (surprisingly without any normal first-time experimentation). They have no language to describe their feelings but know that something vital has taken place and that their lives will never be the same. Separated at the end of the summer, the two men go their separate ways, trying to hold their affair as an insignificant blip but knowing otherwise.
Jack marries Lureen (Anne Hathaway), the daughter of a wealthy farm-equipment salesman and Ennis is married to Alma (Michelle Williams), a convenience store worker. Both have settled into a conventional lifestyle but as the years pass, in spite of wives and children, their inarticulate longing for each other has not disappeared but has grown more solid. After four years, they meet again. When the two men embrace and exchange kisses by the side of the house, Alma catches a glimpse of their passion but is shocked into a silence that remains over the coming years. As the two camp out in the wilderness, Jack suggests they leave their families and live together on a ranch, but Ennis is unwilling to commit to the potential danger that such an arrangement might entail, recounting a story about a rancher who was dragged to his death because he dared to live with another man.
Over the next two decades, the lovers meet as often as they can as Ennis tells his wife he is going on fishing trips, a story she suddenly rejects during a Thanksgiving dinner. Eventually, Alma divorces Ennis because she cannot confront his double life. Instead of providing an opening for a commitment to Jack, however, their love remains unattainable because of money problems and fears of homophobic reprisals. Though the ending has an undeniable power, I did not experience any deep connection with the characters. I understand the limitations imposed by the restricted emotional range of the men in the novel, yet the fact that neither developed very much in the way of conversation, understanding, or intimacy over a long period of time did not enhance my emotional involvement with the film.
Although the mincing stereotypes have disappeared, they have been replaced by regional stereotypes as well as by tight-lipped cowboy "Marlboro Man" stereotypes. Sadly, the women are little more than ciphers, defined only by their long-suffering relationship to their husbands. While many tears are being shed (justifiably) over the men's lives of isolation and unfulfillment, let me also shed a tear for the wives who expected love and commitment from their husbands, and for the children who will grow up without a father figure to nurture them.
Nevertheless, Brokeback Mountain's importance as a cultural statement cannot be denied, and those involved with the film should be acknowledged for their courage. While it is an honest film that may act as a catalyst for change, it should also be noted that there are no gay people involved in the project, no gay actors, producers, or directors and that coming out in Hollywood still means the loss of key roles for most actors. Even if change in people's attitudes does not happen overnight, however, the film will strike a responsive chord with those who have gone through life hiding their true feelings, and may bring the day one step closer when they can "kiss in the sunlight and say to the sky: "Behold and believe what you see! Behold how my lover loves me!"
Brokeback Mountain rides in on four Golden Globe and four BAFTA wins and is widely tipped to do well in the 2006 Oscars. Ang Lee is once again revisiting his favourite themes of the unspoken love, constricting traditional values and relationships filled with lies and deceit (The Ice Storm gets a cheeky name check) with a tale of forbidden love between cowboy Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and rodeo rider Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal).
The two meet in 1963 when they are assigned shepherding duties on the eponymous mountain. In true Western fashion, both are men of few words, but after living and working together a bond slowly develops between them. When they end up in the same tent the night after a storm, curiosity and unbridled passion gets the better of them, and their clandestine affair begins. Both subsequently get married and have children, but their illicit meetings (masquerading as fishing trips) continue well into the seventies.
It’s a story of two men coming to terms with something that’s bigger than both of them. Should they bite the bullet and surrender to the love they have for each other or just be good cowboys and live the American dream? The spectre of Brokeback Mountain looms over them in judgement and Lee, following on from the Incredible Hulk and his earlier Chinese films, once again examines the influence a dominant father can have over his son. When Jack presses Ennis about the possibility of living together, Ennis recounts a time when his father “made sure he saw” the body of a gay man who had been tortured and killed by enraged locals. It’s a reminder that it’s not so long ago that the “crime” of being homosexual could result in a lynching.
Of the two, Jack is more promiscuous, regularly travelling to Mexico to meet rent boys and willing to make the long journey up from his home in Texas on receipt of a one line postcard from Ennis. Ennis on the other hand settles for having sex with his wife from behind. Jack is also the more pushy and outspoken, and regularly tries to engage Ennis in conversation about their future, suggesting that they could find a ranch somewhere and run it together.
Gyllenhaal is certainly convincing in a nagging wife kind of way, but ultimately, it’s Ledgers film. His portrayal of a man racked with guilt and repression builds as the film goes on, culminating in an emotional showdown with Jack. By the end he looks as if his life has been sucked from him, the broken wreckage of a man sitting alone in a dinner eating a solitary piece of that age old symbol of American “family values”- apple pie.
The performances from the women are equally impressive in their portrayal of despair and rejection as they learn of their husbands’ misdemeanours. When Ennis’ wife Alma (Michelle Williams, a dark haired, more wholesome version of Renée Zellweger) catches a glimpse of her husband in a passionate embrace with Jack, she says nothing and stands by her man. But the pain shows and gradually their marriage crumbles. Jack marries Lureen Newsom (Anne Hathaway), the daughter of a bigoted farm machinery dealer. She sticks by Jack to the very end, but there is no doubt that she knows exactly what is going on, her terse treatment of Ennis on the phone at the end of the film showing both contempt and understanding.
The film is handsomely photographed making good use of the rugged Wyoming exteriors, hard drinking bars and macho rodeos to frame the dilemma faced by the two leads. It’s the America of old movies, tourist brochures and adverts. You can imagine Lee showing his cinematographer old Marlborough adverts and saying “that’s what I want this film to look like”. These are Marlborough men on the outside but confused little boys on the inside.
Lee has made an important film which will be remembered for decades to come. The subject was also covered recently in Todd Haynes film Far From Heaven, but this stands as a definitive statement on the subject. The phrase “they’re living on Brokeback mountain” may well become common parlance to describe anyone who is living a repressed life, especially gay people who are unable to face the consequences of coming out - a situation which has improved since the period the film was set in but is still sadly in evidence.
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