Brokeback Mountain

dir: Ang Lee
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It’s strange that such a big deal is being made about this film. Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautifully shot, well-acted, with a touching, sad story to tell.

But it’s such a low-key story, regardless of all the controversy surrounding it. And let’s not skimp on the praise here, it’s utterly ridiculous that such subject matter can still get so many people’s girdles in a twist in this day and age.

Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) work as shepherds in the mountain region of Wyoming one summer in 1963. They talk like Texans, and dress like the Marlboro Man, so I guess they must be cowboys. They’re really not cowboys, though. So those, like me, who were expecting two hours of gay cowboys eating pudding, will be disappointed. Instead of proving the old South Park gag about all arthouse films, they subverted it, the bastards.

Their job on the mountain is to let the sheep graze, and to protect them at night from coyotes and other predators. And though it be 1963, the place is still a pristine wilderness. As such, depicted in relatively modern times, the place has an air of unreality to it, as if it is some fabled realm, of nature unspoiled, where man doesn’t really belong. So two men, up there, all alone on Brokeback Mountain; cold nights, flowing whisky, sleeping in a tent together, what else would you expect, eh?

The two men are brought together fiercely, mindlessly, violently. Ennis, a man of very few words, doesn’t have the vocabulary or the thoughts to explain his feelings or his existence. Jack Twist, as his name even implies, is more worldly, having worked in the rodeo circuit as well, but he too isn’t really able to explain their experience together, the feelings they have for each other, or what their lives are supposed to be like from now on.

Time passes, and the two men live regular, normal lives far from each other, getting married, having kids, working, drinking beer, and maybe only occasionally dreaming of cock. Their time on Brokeback Mountain becomes enshrined in their minds, as the time when they were in the Biblical Paradise. For them both it represents their most fervent dream, and their ultimate damnation.

The story as told is episodic in nature, with leaps of years in an instant, where the only real evidence of time’s passage is the change in facial hair and the occasional year reference. Apart from Jack and Ennis, we get to learn little about the other characters. Even Jack and Ennis are enigmas themselves. They are definitely not underdeveloped, but the film certainly can’t be accused of over-explaining things.

We get a sense, more than ever being told, of the barrenness of these men’s lives, away from each other. Ennis, laconic and inarticulate, grunts out enough to give the impression of a childhood lived mostly without affection, without kindness, without love in his early life. He shares an early memory with Jack of being shown a mutilated corpse by his father, and being told the reason for why such horrors were perpetrated on the man. Needless to say this experience leaves an indelible impression on him which informs the rest of his life.

Their lives change as they get older, but they are both trapped by desire, by circumstance, by fear, by too darn much of everything.

So the story isn’t really, regardless of the press and hoopla about it, and the multiple Academy Award nominations, a crusading piece of gay tolerant propaganda. The story would work just as well had the two protagonists been of different genders, though it would certainly not have resonated as loudly, or done anything but go straight to video.

The makers and actors go out of their way to represent the two leads as anything but effeminate. If anything they possibly go over the top in representing just how not-gay these two men in painful, heart-breaking love are. It doesn’t hurt the way in which the film will be received. Of guy-on-guy action, some will be relieved, and others disappointed that depictions of sex constitute the least amount of running time, probably about 30 seconds in total. The sex isn’t the point, though it is the starting point.

For a film about love and loss, the story manages, through the deft direction and decent acting, to avoid cheap sentiment, treacle or cheese. There are moments that don’t work perfectly in the scope of the story, such as a Thanksgiving Dinner gone wrong, but they are completely outweighed by the rest of the story that they get right.

It helps to have decent actors in the roles, and well-written, but believable dialogue. None of the characters involved are rocket scientists, so having them come up with Shakespearian sonnets or complex treatises on the nature of existence would have been out of place and cumbersome. In the same manner that Ennis’ inability to communicate or express his powerful feelings tells more about him than any voiceover or exposition could, so too does the film leave more to interpretation and implication than explicitly telling us what to think or feel at any given moment.

Heath Ledger, who I’ve actively disliked in other roles (such as the diabolical Ned Kelly), is nothing short of amazing here. He completely submerges himself in the role, doing better work than I thought he was capable of as Ennis. He is the reason why we care about the protagonists; his is the pain and the aching loneliness that leaves the audience in tears at the end.

And they certainly were when I saw it. A full house of people of different ages and backgrounds were all wiping tears away as the final credits rolled. I’m not making that up, it was a lot of people blubbering and making free use of hankies.

Of course I don’t cry, because crying is for little girls. But had I been able to physically cry (I lost my tear ducts in a bong-related accident back in 1906), I would have wept copious tears at film’s end.
It really is that good. The womenfolk who support our Oscars Wilde by looking the other way until they can’t any more, Alma (Michelle Williams) and Lureen (Anne Hathaway), do excellent work with the limited screen time they have. Hathaway in particular has to manage starting off as a beautiful Annie Oakley-type cowgirl who then gradually turns into Dolly Parton over the course of twenty years. It’s quite a transformation.

Alma has the harder role, and she has a great acting moment when she views a kiss that she really shouldn’t have. She and the kids are the best example of the tremendous price the people around someone with such a secret have to pay, and pay and pay. Everyone pays, it’s a real user-pays system here, which would make the economic rationalists in the audience happy if any of them would deign to go to see such a film.

Still, both wives are drawn very thin, and have little to do. I don’t know if it would have enhanced the film to flesh the wife characters out a bit more, but it couldn’t have hurt. Though the flick, at over two hours, certainly didn’t need more screen time. It’s pretty slow as well, so the impatient will likely go berserk and start hating cowboys even more than they already did.

Jake Gyllenhaal isn’t getting the plaudits in the same way Ledger is, but without him the flick wouldn’t work. His Jack is a very different man to Ennis, who lives a very different life with very different mechanisms for dealing with his time away from Ennis. They are not only separated by distance and work, but by something as basic as money. He plays the character wisely, without many of the affectations that I’ve come to expect from him since his Donnie Darko days. It’s a very mature portrayal from a pretty young guy, and I commend him for it.

As much praise as I’d like to give to the actors involved, E. Annie Proulx for writing the initial short story, and screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana for adapting it, it’s Ang Lee who really continues to surprise with his films. He has this way of getting into the emotional core of his characters and the story he wants to tell that I find quite transcendent. And here he’s turned a story about two simple guys into a beautiful and complex study of life, love and loss that will touch all but the most miserable of bitter cynics.

The ending of the film is sublime. Few films in recent memory have endings as profoundly affecting and appropriate as this film achieves, both at Jack’s parents farm and later in Ennis’ trailer home.

Enough of the superlatives, it only serves to give people false expectations. It’s a good film, not for everyone, of course, but it is certainly one of the better films that came out in 2005. Heath Ledger deserves to win Best Actor, but there’s no way he can beat the natural Academy bias towards biographical portrayals, which is why Phillip Seymour Hoffman had the award tied up from the second he started simpering away as Truman Capote.

Which is a shame. There is a need for powerful love stories like this to be told, to make up for all the patently idiotic crap that passes for romance in the movies these days.

8 times ‘I didn’t send you up there to let the dogs babysit the sheep at night while you two stemmed the rose’ out of 10

“There ain't never enough time, never enough…” – Jack Twist, Brokeback Mountain.