Brokeback Mountain, 2005
Written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana
based on the short story by Annie Proulx
Directed by Ang Lee
I hadn't seen this movie until now. Not that I had been specifically avoiding it, but, well, it slipped through my fingers, and I just never went out seeking it. I remember the controversy when it was first released, though, and when Heath Ledger died I decided that I probably owed it to his memory to have seen what was widely considered to be his greatest performance.
And now having seen it, I am struck with two reactions.
Firstly, the sadness of loss: Ledger really was that good; his work here is nothing short of amazing. It's a performance that cries out for recognition, that declares that the actor making it will have a long, distinguished career filled with brilliant work. Ledger is like a young Brando or De Niro here, utterly transforming his matinee idol status into a character, and hiding his own charisma and good looks into the subtle nuances of his performance.
The second response I feel upon seeing it is to shake my head ruefully. That any person could be inflamed by this film, that any person could see this as at all controversial, is a more searing indictment of our current American culture than anything else about the film. Brokeback Mountain is not a movie about politics, it does not contain impassioned speeches in favor of gay rights or against religion or anything else. It is a love story, a great love story, and like all great love stories, it is a tragedy.
Brokeback Mountain opens with the meeting of two men, Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhall) and Ennis del Mar (Ledger). They're drifters taking whatever ranch and/or farm work they can get in Wyoming, 1963. They're hired by Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid) to spend the summer rustling sheep around Brokeback mountain, one of them sleeping with the flock in defiance of game rules, the other sleeping at the camp and taking care of supplies. They are both masculine men used to the rigors of hard work, men of few words, but the dissimilarities are apparent pretty quickly. Ennis is choked off, secretive, pursing his lips even when speaking, while Jack is more ingratiating, easier to get along with, talkative.
The film takes its time showing the rhythms of their summer on Brokeback. They camp together, eat together, rustle sheep together, and only gradually do they begin to share their lives. When they finally admit their feelings to one another, it is with actions, not words, in a love scene that verges on a sort of consensual rape. Afterwards, they separate for a day, and when Ennis returns to the camp, his first words are, "I'm not queer." "Neither am I," Jack responds.
From here it's difficult to summarize the plot, for the film is more about mood and emotion than story. Ennis and Jack finish out their summer together, are berated by Aguirre as to how badly they've done their job, and separate. Ennis gets married to Alma (Michelle Williams, Ledger's girlfriend at the time who became his real-life wife and later, his widow) and has two kids with her. Jack goes back to the rodeo circuit and eventually meets a rodeo queen named Lureen Newsome (Anne Hathaway) -- she will eventually marry him and give him a son. It is one of the marks of brilliance in this film that both women are portrayed as fully human, and the relationship between Ennis and Jack hurts them both in different ways.
Four years after that first summer at Brokeback, the two men will meet again and begin to go on secretive "fishing trips" in which they consummate their love affair. In between these encounters, Jack will spend time with other men, including prostitutes. The more repressed Ennis seems to be able to live on only the love he gets from Jack, and is never seen approaching another man. In their day-to-day lives, they are even more different -- while Ennis spends his days alone in a remote shack, taking whatever work he can get, Jack ends up gaining a life of middle-class tranquility through marriage and a good job at his wife's father's farm equipment business.
We follow these two men for about twenty years, and as the movie reaches its end, the story of Jack and Ennis reaches tragic proportions. Jack wants to find a way to move in with Ennis and have a life together, while Ennis --who has had a tougher life -- knows that if they do they will become a target for the ignorance and intolerance of their neighbors. No one does repression better than director Ang Lee, and it is in Ledger's performance during these sequences that the movie achieves its greatness, and all leading to a final shot that is both magnificent and heartbreaking.
Absent the controversy, this is simply an old-fashioned love story between two people who broke the rules of society and could not be together. We might say that things are different now, that America in 2008 is better than American in 1963 or 1983, but it wasn't even a decade ago that Matthew Shepard was killed for being gay, and conservatives vote down measures giving equal rights to gays every time they're put to a vote. Brokeback Mountain is not about homophobes, but homophobia informs every frame, and if we take any lesson from this film it should be that when people love each other it should be in society's interest to allow that love to prosper, rather than to try to suppress it.
What an incredible story. What an incredible romance. What an incredible... love.