What I remember most about Brokeback Mountain is how beautiful it is. The movie in my mind’s eye is a steady succession of gorgeous scenery – majestic mountains and lonely plains, rivers and streams and long, endless highways. Ang Lee tells his sad love story perfectly with just the scenery of the American West.
Which is what makes it all the stranger that he can’t tell it as well with his characters. As Brokeback Mountain ended I felt a strange emptiness – I know I was meant to be devastated, but I was only sort of sad. I was contemplative. But my cheeks were dry – which is actually impressive, since I’m a notorious crybaby at movies.
Ang Lee’s films are all about repression, and in Annie Proulx’s 11-page short story Brokeback Mountain he has found his ultimate subject. Even disregarding the fact that the two leads are closeted gay men, the Western man isn’t known for his forthcoming feelings. It’s a culture of men who say little but feel deeply and secretly. The extra layer of repression, though, becomes a gauze obscuring the emotional beats of the story.
Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist are two men looking for work in 1963. They end up hired to watch a huge herd of sheep grazing on Brokeback Mountain for the summer. The set-up is simple – it’s illegal to camp on the grazing land, so one man stays with the sheep in secret and one man maintains a legal campsite nearby. The two should only see each other at meals.
But the mountain is lonely, and the men find the company good. One night too much whiskey is drank, and one thing leads to another. In the morning it’s business as usual – “I ain’t no queer,” Ennis says. It’s a one time deal, the sort of thing that happens between men in isolation sometimes.
But it’s not, and that’s obvious from the first violent, passionate coupling. The two men fall in love, although nothing is ever said of it. When the summer ends and it’s time for the two to part, Ennis, the quiet one, ends up in an alley, almost vomiting tears. It’s a searing moment, one brought home by Heath Ledger’s masterful performance.
The two men lead their own lives, and get married and have children. But the pull between them – the pull of true love – is too strong, and they begin a series of trysts, always back at Brokeback Mountain.
Heath Ledger is the anchor of the film. He’s getting pushed as a lead actor for awards consideration – I imagine part of that is to keep co-star Jake Gyllenhaal out of possible competition with himself for Jarhead, but it’s also quite deserved. Ennis Del Mar is a very interior character, someone who can’t be played in big motions or expressions. Ledger uses every bit of his body to tell the story of this character, creating Ennis almost telepathically in the audience’s minds. It’s the capstone on a year that has seen Ledger taking on many different roles, refusing to be pigeon-holed as one kind of actor.
Taking the rest of the cast in order of impressiveness, Anne Hathaway plays Lureen, the rodeo queen who marries Jack Twist. Brokeback spans twenty years, but all too often it was hard for me to see the progression of time – except when Hathaway was on screen. She tracks the changes in Lureen wonderfully, a feat especially impressive since the wives get very secondary roles. She often has only a few moments of screentime to get across what phase Lureen is in, but as we follow her from a wild and flirty girl to a flinty woman trapped in a loveless marriage we feel a complete and three dimensional character. Why has Hathaway been trapped in roles aimed tween girls and horny fanboys?
Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jack Twist is, for all intents and purposes, the opposite of Ennis Del Mar. Ennis is the quiet cowboy (sort of. They’re herding sheep, not cows, so technically this isn’t a gay cowboy movie after all) while Jack is more of a wannabe. Gyllenhaal captures his outsider’s desperation well, showing us how badly he wants to find a place in the world of men, trying and failing at the rodeo and ranching. His outsider aspect is deepened by his homosexuality, something he finds harder to hide than Ennis.
Last, but not least, Michelle Williams plays Alma, Ennis’ suffering wife. While it’s arguable if Lurleen knows that her husband has a boyfriend, Alma sees Ennis kissing Jack – not only must she deal with the sting of betrayal, it’s coming from a bizarre and confusing place, a kind of cheating wholly outside of her realm of reference. Alma’s character might be the most tragic in the film as she is completely destroyed by Ennis’ secret life. Williams has a Great Plains beauty that makes her feel completely of the place and time period.
All of these actors are great in their roles – Oscar nominations for this whole cast wouldn’t be shocking. So why is it that the human story never engaged me fully? It seems like Ang Lee continues the trend he was on with Hulk, where the urge is to remove the characters from us as much as possible. These people, and their lives, often feel as distant as the looming mountain ranges that beautifully fill so many shots.
The passage of time presents another problem for the film – or maybe it highlights one I already had. I knew that I wasn’t connecting with the emotional aspect of the movie when I would scour the frame for time period clues. How many years lapsed since the last scene?, would be my question, rather than what had happened to these people in the time between scenes. It wasn’t helped by the fact that the aging effects weren’t convincing to me at all, except for Hathaway.
Of course there’s the urge to overlook these flaws and trumpet Brokeback as the best film of the year just because it’s arguably the most important. The love story told in this film is unlike any other love story ever done in American cinema but at the same time in the same vein as a multitude of classic doomed love stories. You don’t see gay men like these in movies very often – usually the gay guys in a film are your urban stereotypes, the queer eye sort. Ennis and Jack couldn’t be less like that. It’s important to see gay men played as something other than caricatures, to be reminded that you can’t always just a person’s sexuality by their lisp or personal style, no matter what the culture would have you believe.
But more than that, Brokeback is an exhilarating slap in the face of the right wing hatemongers. It shows a truly loving relationship that is doomed because of societal strictures, and it shows how otherwise good men will ruin the lives of other people because they must live a lie. Brokeback shows that it isn’t just homosexuals who suffer from the fire and brimstone barrage of supposedly holy types; it’s also the people they love, and the people who get enmeshed in the lies they have to construct to save themselves. If nothing else, everyone should go see Brokeback Mountain once in theaters to make a statement against the homophobia that rages in our country today.
Of course, going to see movies as political statements is less than satisfying. So should you see Brokeback anyway? I would argue yes, if only because Ang Lee is like a master painter here, using the landscape as a supplement to the story of these lovers in wonderful ways. Seeing this film on DVD will rob you of the sheer majesty of its images. But there’s still the issue of my distance from the story.
Movies are alchemy, a kind of magic. Actually, I think the best comparison might be the golem. Brokeback Mountain is a superbly crafted thing, a golem that looks incredible. But somehow the spark of life hasn’t been fully breathed into the thing. It isn’t like the golem is inert, but it’s not really alive.
Brokeback Mountain is cinematic craftsmanship of the highest degree. I liked it, and I loved aspects of it. But for me the film is kept from a possible pinnacle of greatness by an emotional disconnect at its center.