That Brokeback Got Me Good
Brokeback Mountain / Jeremy C. Fox
For a lot of people I know, both gay and straight, Brokeback Mountain is the most anticipated film of the year. Since it was first announced in 2003, it’s generally been known as “that gay cowboy movie” — the film in which, for the first time, two handsome Hollywood stars on the rise would appear in an honest-to-God gay romance, the movie that would give us both the love that dare not speak its name and the sex scenes that Tom Hanks (in Philadelphia) and Colin Farrell (in both A Home at the End of the World and Alexander) dare not shoot — but calling Brokeback Mountain “that gay cowboy movie” is about as reductive as calling The Godfather “that mafia movie.” It contains aspects of Westerns, gay coming-of-age films, and romantic melodramas, but to apply a facile label would be to underestimate its majestic sweep and its heartening and heartrending depth. It is, at its base, a film about the conflict between what a man is and what he needs.
The movie’s source is the final story in Annie Proulx’s book Close Range: Wyoming Stories, a collection of narratives about difficult lives lived in difficult circumstances by people who mostly don’t expect better. Her characters tend to be of two types: the dreamers who either buy into the romance of the West or can’t wait to escape it and the realists who accept their lot with stoic resilience. Brokeback Mountain has one of each: Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), starry-eyed and caught up in heroic myths, and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) a pragmatist who just lives his life the only way he knows how. In outline, the film is simple: Boy gets boy; boy loses boy; boy gets and loses boy over and over again across a lifetime — but there’s a whole world of suffering and grief in all that getting and losing, a permanent sense of loss, of possibilities forever forestalled, happiness perpetually found and then denied, lessons learned too late.
Over the past year or so, Heath Ledger has been involved in a project of rejiggering his career, eschewing the fluffy, audience-pleasing “blond-haired bimbo” roles that made him famous and saying fuck you to the Hollywood establishment, taking flaky character parts or leads that other young actors considered too risky. Here he confirms a suspicion that I developed after seeing Lords of Dogtown last summer and realizing that he’d played a sizable role without my ever recognizing him — he’s a startlingly gifted actor. He’s playing a character who’s superficially a throwback to the days of John Wayne and Gary Cooper, and he outwardly embodies the quintessential Western hero, squinting his eyes into black creases and murmuring his words through drawn lips, with an accent that’s a little bit Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade and a little bit Sam Elliott in everything (though with a lighter timbre). But Ennis doesn’t have it in him to be an icon. Having lost his parents as a child, he was early prepared for a hard life full of disappointments; he’s uncomplaining and compliant, willing to work any shit-job he can get, willing to perform any task unquestioningly.
While Ennis begins the film shambling like a young man whom life has already beaten, Jack struts around like a stud horse, intoxicated with the idea of being a rodeo star and proving his worth to his disapproving father and, by extension, the world. Gyllenhaal’s performance at first seems a little out of place; everyone around him (at this point, essentially Ledger, Randy Quaid, and some sheep) seems entirely at ease and unactorish, but on a second viewing I realized that what I was watching wasn’t Gyllenhaal’s performance — it was Jack’s. Jack is constantly trying to fill the role of Western hero, trying to impress; when we first see him, waiting with Ennis outside Joe Aguirre’s trailer-office, he leans against his truck in an exaggeratedly casual posture, with a “hey, cowboy” leer. The pose seems tentative here, but when he strikes it again later, after he knows he’s won Ennis, it’s triumphant. Unlike Ennis, Jack knows what he wants and is willing to go after it, though he may be only a little better at understanding it.
Ennis and Jack first meet in Signal, Wyoming, in 1963, when they take summer jobs tending sheep on Brokeback Mountain for Joe Aguirre (Quaid). Up on Brokeback, they endure harsh weather, minimal provisions, and predator attacks on the sheep, and gradually, over a period of days and weeks, they reveal themselves to each other and become close. When a night of too much whiskey and too much cold confines them to the same small tent, Jack, who’s clearly had it on his mind for a while, makes his move and they consummate their relationship. Early reports on the film suggested that the physical affection between Ennis and Jack would be downplayed; that perhaps they wouldn’t even kiss onscreen, but this encounter is treated no more or less gingerly than their later encounters with women. There’s no ambiguity about the sex, no discreet fade to black, but neither is it played for titillation or shock value. The connection between Ennis and Jack is powerful, even elemental, and sex is what cements it, a factor it would be dishonest to exclude, but there’s far more to it than that. Ennis gives Jack the tenderness and affection that he craves, offers him the acceptance that his father denied him, but what Jack gives Ennis is understanding; he’s the one person in the world around whom Ennis can drop his guard, though even with Jack it falls only so far. But what this relationship means to them, the powerful hold they have over each other, is something they have little means to express. Like many men, their feelings come out most clearly through aggression. The physical violence between Ennis and Jack is more than just a metaphor for the emotional violence of their connection, it’s the only way these inarticulate men are able to express the strength of their feelings. Though it’s tacitly clear in their every interaction, and though they often speak of the grip “this thing” has on them, throughout the film’s two and a quarter hours neither dares to say the word “love.”
Like many a homosexual encounter, theirs begins in drunkenness, when their inhibitions are lowered, and like many people after their first homosexual encounter, Ennis would like to believe that it’s a fluke, no big deal. “This is a one-shot thing we got goin’ on here. … You know I ain’t queer,” he tells Jack the next afternoon, hoping and perhaps still believing that it’s true. Ennis plays the “masculine” role and tries to preserve his image of himself as a man. He tries to separate sex from emotion, to convince himself that Jack is no more to him than a vehicle for his sexual drive, a partner better suited to the purpose than his hand but only marginally preferable to the sheep. Initially he can’t admit to himself that he’s getting anything more from Jack than a sexual release; when Jack wants to be treated as a lover, an equal, to be kissed and to be held, Ennis is terrified of the implicit suggestion that indeed he is queer, of surrendering his masculine prerogative, of assuming an ambiguous role. But need and regard for Jack overpower his fears and he relents. When the sheep-tending job is ending and they must separate, the full force of Ennis’ emotion comes down on him and he’s wrecked.
Ennis returns home and marries his sweetheart Alma (Michelle Williams), attempting to return to his old life with little success. Separated from Jack, he tries to make a Jack of Alma, wrestling with her in the snow as he’d wrestled with Jack up on Brokeback, too rough for a woman half his size, assigning her the sexual role Jack had assumed eagerly but which she accepts with grim marital devotion. Ennis becomes a caring father and he loves Alma as best he can, but his unfulfilled desires isolate him from his family. As the years pass, he increasingly draws away from them.
Jack moves to Texas for rodeoing but has little success. Though he’s drawn to men and looks for opportunities for hookups, he’s impressed when he meets a pretty young barrel-racer named Lureen Newsome (Anne Hathaway), though it’s suggested that her family’s wealth may have as much to do with her appeal as her personal charms. They marry and settle in Childress, Texas, where they both work for Lureen’s father, a big-time farm-equipment dealer. After four years have passed since that summer on the mountain, Jack finally heads back up to Wyoming and finds Ennis. When they meet again, their passion overtakes them, and they resume their relationship, planning several hunting or fishing trips a year so that they can be together, Jack driving 14-hour stretches at every opportunity to spend time alone with Ennis.
Ledger and Gyllenhaal inhabit their characters with powerful realism. As the years pass, the actors age subtly but persuasively. Jack grows a Dennis Weaver moustache and develops a beer gut; Ennis, who seemed old even when he was young, changes only in the hardening of his face, his skin growing more dry and taut, getting crepey around the eyes. The makeup artists have done great work here, but it’s Ledger and Gyllenhaal who have to carry these scenes off, and they do so admirably. Even in the latter part of the film, when Ledger is playing father to a young woman who can’t be more than a few years his junior, you don’t question it.
For those who care about a film adaptation’s faithfulness to its literary forerunner, the situation of Brokeback Mountain’s production — adapting a brief but thematically rich and emotionally resonant story — is perhaps ideal. The nature of film — its reliance on the visual and the active over the contemplative, its necessary brevity — makes it almost impossible to do full justice to a novel, but a short story doesn’t make such demands on a screenwriter. Rather than reducing or eliminating themes and events, he can use what was in the original and expand upon it, taking ideas that were only hinted at and exploring them at greater length, bringing out new meanings and enriching existing ones. This is what Brokeback Mountain’s screenwriters, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, have done; they know that Proulx’s story wasn’t broke, and they don’t try to fix it. They simply take it and allow it to sprawl out, to fill up the edges of the film with carefully observed details. McMurtry, a Texan and author of both contemporary and period novels and screenplays about the West, understands this world as well as anyone might; Ossana has lived much of her life in New Mexico and Arizona and has collaborated with McMurtry on novels and screenplays for over a decade. Their elaborations on Proulx’s story are keyed perfectly to her pitch. They’ve made the chronology more linear — an esthetically neutral decision in this case — but nothing of substance is missing, while some useful context and character motivations are added. They expand the story into other points of view, strengthening Proulx’s insights, giving a greater sense of the impact that Ennis and Jack’s love has on those around them, and adding such small but meaningful touches as a brown paper sack offered at just the right moment.
This is the first film Ang Lee has directed since Hulk, and he seems to have learned from that considerable misfire. He’s playing to his strengths here, and they are remarkable. Like many of the canniest observers of American life, Lee is an outsider who has adopted the American culture and who continues to see our society with a clearer eye than we may have ourselves. A native of Taiwan who has lived much of his adult life in the United States, Lee is adept at immersing himself in new cultures (New York Times critic Stephen Holden once called him “a kind of cinematic anthropologist”), recreating the world of his characters and examining it with a thoughtful, critical eye without resorting to parody. Lee has sometimes been accused of being too clinical, of keeping his subjects at an objective distance, but there’s none of that here. His empathy with these characters — each of them trapped in his or her own particular way — is palpable, yet he never tips over into sentimentality or lugubriousness.
Lee and his cinematographer, the versatile Rodrigo Prieto (21 Grams, Alexander), capture the feeling that runs through all of Proulx’s Wyoming stories, a sense of the permanence of the land and the transience of individual human lives. Their Wyoming (played with picture-postcard beauty by Alberta, Canada) is a painterly landscape of craggy mountains; rich, verdant grasslands; and a gorgeous, endless sky above, that serves as half of a metaphor for the characters’ dual lives; it’s the idyllic Eden where Ennis and Jack first meet and later find temporary escape, the place they can be together and be themselves without fear of judgment, contrasted against the constricted feel of the dusty, squalid cow towns and tacky, middle-class, southwestern suburbs where they spend most of their lives.
Lee takes the classic contrast between nature and civilization and uses it in a new way, as an implicit argument that the love between Ennis and Jack is a natural thing subverted by the arbitrary rules and definitions of manhood of their society. This might sound pretentious, and in many other hands it could be, but the beauty of Lee’s technique is its simplicity, its directness and lack of pretense, its ability to suggest without overplaying. He’s assisted by the somber elegance of Gustavo Santaolalla’s guitar-and-fiddle score, which evokes Country-Western music without quite entering its twangy domain and fits the moods Lee creates without overselling them.
Brokeback Mountain bears some similarities to Lee’s 1993 film The Wedding Banquet, in which a gay Chinese man living in New York with his lover must get himself a nice Chinese wife to appease his traditional parents back in Taiwan. Lee isn’t gay, but in films like The Wedding Banquet, Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon he’s shown an understanding of gay men and straight women — the disenfranchised of patriarchies — that’s greater than just about any other straight male director I can think of; as much as I admire Gus Van Sant (who is gay and who at one point expressed interest in directing Brokeback Mountain) I can’t imagine anyone doing this story better. As far as I know, none of the principals involved in the production is gay, yet they’ve constructed a story of love between men that surpasses all but the greatest films made by gay filmmakers, such as Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho. Lee’s fascinated with people whose desires are thwarted by the strictures of society and the sacrifices demanded by tradition. And, in America, no tradition is more venerable than the notion of the laconic, stalwart western hero, the icon that Jack wishes he were and that Ennis falls to by dint of circumstance. It’s part of Ennis’ appeal to Jack that he embodies the cowboy archetype Jack aspires to.
Lee’s aware that he’s playing with myth, but he doesn’t muck about with it capriciously. Westerns are always about the end of a way of life, and Lee seems ambivalent about the changes that time has wrought. If Ennis and Jack were 20 years old in 2003 rather than 1963, their relationship would be easier but the West they knew would be gone. Brokeback Mountain uses the West as a backdrop, but it’s not structured like a Western, and it’s not intended as a criticism of the genre like McCabe and Mrs. Miller or Unforgiven, films that took the Western hero and made him either a buffoon or a sociopath; rather it’s a film that employs selected genre elements for their resonances, their associations. The mythic quality of the landscape and the lonesome figures moving through it only serves to emphasize the difficulty of these men playing the roles they’ve been given, the impossibility of living up to a myth.
The filmmakers have the guts to allow for the moral ambiguity of Ennis and Jack’s situation and explore the toll their secret takes on their families. No matter how powerful or natural their desires, by following them they’re hurting the women they married in their misdirected search for the passion they find only with each other. While I’d enjoyed Michelle Williams’ performances in small roles in recent films like Imaginary Heroes and The Baxter, until now my concept of her was essentially “that girl from ‘Dawson’s Creek.’” Those days are over. Her performance here is so deeply felt, authentic, and adult that it wipes away all my preconceived notions about her — not to mention blowing her former co-star Katie Holmes, whose recent performances haven’t strayed far from the Creek, right out of the water. When Williams’ Alma first witnesses her husband embracing a man, kissing him, her face expresses about 10 kinds of alarm, confusion, heartbreak, and horror. And Anne Hathaway, who plays Jack’s wife Lureen, might have forever been Mia Thermopolis to me but for her role here. She’s given less to play than Williams, but she makes the most of every moment. Her silent triumph when Jack finally stands up to her bullying father is exhilarating, and the slight catch in her throat that disturbs her frosty demeanor when she speaks to Ennis for the first and last time, the subtle suggestion that she’s finally learned her husband’s secret, completely transforms the way we see her character. Even the actors in roles that count for little more than cameos, such as the tiny part played by an unrecognizable Anna Faris, or the slightly larger role given to Linda Cardellini, hit home. It’s as if Lee had been asked to prove that every B-list actress in Hollywood under 30 had unplumbed depths. There’s not a performer in the film who doesn’t stretch (well, maybe Randy Quaid, but it’s nice to see him in a respectable role again), and there’s not one who fails.
Lee is aware of his film’s place in the world, that no one will approach it as just a romance and that much more attention will be given it than if the actors were nobodies, and his approach is, I think, the best possible one, low-key and matter-of-fact, making the story feel genuine and simple and true. Brokeback Mountain is a film of great subtlety and precise observation, a film for which the best descriptors are words like “rich” and “authentic” and, possibly, “perfect.” After three viewings and some careful consideration, I’m damned if I can find a significant flaw. There are one or two lines of dialogue that I might change, and Gyllenhaal’s early scenes made more sense to me upon the second viewing, but these are quibbles. In a medium where the important decisions are almost always dictated by commerce rather than art, Brokeback Mountain is as close to perfection as we are likely to get.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()