Director: Ang Lee
Starring: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway
Brokeback Mountain is representative of a lot of things to a lot of people. For some it is a watershed film that suggests a movement towards a more inclusive mainstream cinema. For others, it is a lightning rod for controversy and further evidence of society’s decaying values. It is one of two films involved in what is easily the most contentious Best Picture selection of the last decade. “Brokeback Mountain” is bigger than the film itself, bigger than the story on which it is based, bigger than even the Hollywood machine. Its reception is indicative of the volatile relationship between society and the individual and a measure of the distance left to travel in the battle for equality. But beneath all of that lies a quiet and beautifully crafted masterpiece, a film that transcends whatever boundaries might otherwise ghettoize it as a "gay movie" to become, simply, a great movie.
Beginning in 1962, the film explores the relationship between Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) that begins at the eponymous locale. Hired to tend to sheep for the summer, Ennis and Jack go up the mountain, set up camp, and prepare for months of near total isolation. They have no one but each other for company and yet spend large swaths of time apart, as one is supposed to tend to the camp while the other guards the sheep, leaving the flock only twice per day in order to have breakfast and dinner. One night the routine is broken and both spend the night at camp, their relationship progressing from longing looks to physical contact.
They insist to each other that they aren’t gay, agreeing that their relationship is situational, though their bond obviously runs much deeper than that. When the job ends, they come back down the mountain and go their separate ways – Jack back to the rodeo, Ennis to marry Alma (Michelle Williams). Four years pass. Ennis and Alma have two daughters and are barely able make ends meet; Jack has given up the rodeo and settled into a life of financial comfort with his wife Lureen (Anne Hathaway) and their son, and sells farm equipment for his father-in-law’s company. When the opportunity arises to pass through Wyoming, Jack looks Ennis up and they pick up where they left off.
Seeing Brokeback Mountain again for the first time in years, I was struck by the thread of loneliness that runs through it. The landscape is open and empty; the characters are isolated and unable, for the most part, to connect with each other. The most meaningful connection is forged reluctantly, kept alive through brief intervals of contact over the course of some twenty years. Ennis and Jack spend most of their relationship lonely not only for each other but also for themselves and the ability to abandon a pretence that makes life painful for them. Jack is willing to take the risk, always talking about setting off so that they can have a real life together, but Ennis, scarred by a violent memory from childhood, won’t be persuaded and so their relationship remains a major force relegated to the very margins of their lives. One of the most touching scenes in the film comes at the end, when Ennis’ daughter invites him to her wedding. He tells her that he doesn’t think he can take time off work, an excuse he also used occasionally with Jack, and then thinks better of it, having learned how precious time with someone you love can be. He may never feel safe enough to let her know this other part of himself, but he won't keep himself from her entirely either. In a performance that is strong from beginning to end, these are Ledger's finest moments.
Due to its subject matter, the film was controversial before it even hit theatres, though it isn't at all explicit. In fact, the physicality between Ledger and Gyllenhaal is downright chaste compared to some of the obligatory pseudo-lesbianism that is occasionally shoehorned into the American mainstream. However, in making Ennis and Jack cowboys, Brokeback challenges a very masculine, very American image and calls into question popular conceptions of sexuality and gender, exposing those popular images for the fragile poses that they are. It also explores its themes in terms of the personal rather than the political. In films like Milk and Philadelphia, for example, the focus isn't on the protagonists' sex lives as much as it is on the issues of equality and acceptance. Brokeback Mountain can't be considered in the same terms because Ennis and Jack aren't crusaders but two simple men trying simply to find happiness. This isn't an "issue movie" but a romance that asks the viewer to see its characters as human beings rather than symbols and questions why their desires should be considered illegitimate and what purpose is served by making two consenting adults feel like criminals for wanting to be together.
As the starcrossed lovers, Ledger and Gyllenhaal both render solid, effective performances. For many people, myself included, this film was the first indication that Ledger could actually, you know, act and though Ennis is a man of few words, Ledger is able to convey his inner turmoil. As for Gyllenhaal, he guides Jack's transition from needy youth to weary and fed-up middle-age without ever missing a beat. The ageing process for the two characters is done in such a subtle, believable way that you hardly even notice as you're watching and that's as much a credit to makeup as it is to the two actors and the ways that they allow their characters to grow and change over time.
Although Brokeback Mountain's impact on the culture is not as great as its ubiquity might suggest, given the dearth of gay characters as romantic leads in mainstream cinema since its release, it is nevertheless a great film. It is as powerful today as when it was first released and by all rights should be considered one of the great movie love stories of all time.