” … I wanted eternal union with a man too: another kind of love,” he said.
“I don’t believe it,” she said. “It’s an obscenity, a theory, a perversity.”
“Well — ” he said.
“You can’t have two kind of love. Why should you!”
“It seems as if I can’t,” he said. “Yet I wanted it.”
“You can’t have it, because it’s false, impossible,” she said.
“I don’t believe that,” he answered.
– D. H. Lawrence, Women in Love
Men in love is not new to art. With Gilgamesh and Enkidu, it’s as old as poetry. Jonathan and David, Achilles and Patroclus, and Plato’s Symposium comport with readers looking for the ancient ennobling of same-sex love. But leaping from myth or literature to the big screen is huge in a culture that suckles on visual media.
Brokeback Mountain, first the New Yorker short story now the film, takes recognizably western icons and turns them askew. To hear people talk, the story of two cowboys falling in love in the summer of 1963 while sheepherding in Wyoming, then sustaining that love for 20 years, is heresy. It is one thing for movies to question our traditions of violence and capitalism, quite another to confront forbidden lust. Can we just ignore it, as we have in American movies for the last century? What, pray tell, would John
Ford have to say?
Ironies are not lost. Brokeback Mountain is the creation of heterosexuals: director Ang Lee, actors Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, story writer Annie Proulx, and screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana. Collectively they blasted through the squirm-in-your-seats problem of male homosexuality in mainstream American films. No movie has accomplished this with more finesse. Revisit Cruising, Making Love, Longtime Companion, Philadelphia, or The Birdcage for the evidence. Brokeback Mountain redresses the shortcomings of yesteryear with exceptional grace, depth, and intelligence. The affectations of sexuality are gone, and in their place are the affectations of a pernicious machismo.
Brokeback Mountain is so much more than a daring reinvention of the modern western. It is a shrewd and moving exploration of empathy that recalls the great forbidden love troika of Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven. Rodeo rider Jack and itinerant ranch hand Ennis are constricted not just by society’s lethal hatred, but by self-destruction. Ennis’s anxiety over a more permanent commitment to Jack is both real and imaginary. He is a hurt animal prone to violence as an ineffective cure for his sexual desires. It is rational self-defense, and a wholly human response, yet it will doom him to purgatory.
The open glory of the scenery is in absolute contrast to the social entrapment that fates Jack and Ennis to loveless marriages and negligent, ineffectual fatherhood. It is after their agonizing first summer farewell that the movie skillfully treats time like an accordion. The early scenes languish on the epic majesty of craggy peaks, electric storms, and endless horizons dotted with conifers. Searing life memories are made for Jack and Ennis. After their first thrilling, urgent animal coupling, we don’t see much more of their private affections. The years whiz by in the film’s middle, signaling that nothing will be as special, or as holy, as the idyllic first days of their romance. We see the evolution of their lives — the comings and goings of girlfriends, marriages, children, and facial hair — but we don’t see what becomes of the physical expression of their love. Their lusty kissing after a four-year separation clinches their lasting passion, but the scene quickly turns into a voyeuristic nightmare for Ennis’ wife Alma.
Brokeback Mountain is blessedly free of Hollywood condescension, despite the presence of outsized belt buckles and press-on nails. There is not one character, major or minor, that devolves into caricature. The movie is a triumph of spare dialogue, as actors communicate reams with their faces and bodies. Credit Ang Lee, who here exceeds his already excellent work with actors in Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm. Note, for example, how Gyllenhaal as Jack wills himself not to catch a sideways glance of his naked comrade. The stricken face of Michelle Williams as Alma conveys the seismic catastrophe of love that must not exist but will not disappear. The moment she knows her marriage is over is a miracle of economic acting. Lureen’s (Anne Hathaway) bitterness at husband Jack can be measured by the amount of peroxide in her hair. Finally, Ledger’s sterling last moments on screen are a validation of the entire bold enterprise.
As rendered in Proulx’s story, Jack had “some weight in the haunch and his smile disclosed buckteeth,” while Ennis had a “high-arched nose and narrow face . . . scruffy and a little cave-chested.” In the film’s major concession to commercial viability, both Gyllenhaal and Ledger are decidedly prettier than Proulx’s inventions. That in no way minimizes their performances. As a man rendered inarticulate by childhood miseries, Ledger’s words crawl down his throat before they are off his tongue. His eyes look scalded from seeing too much cruelty; His mouth grows crooked and thin over the years. As an actor, Ledger has a great understanding for Ennis, and the widespread praise he has enjoyed is merited. But the margin of excellence between his performance and Gyllenhaal’s is narrow. Jack is the more outgoing and impulsive of the two, but his hurt cuts just as deep. His coltish enthusiasm is all the more devastating by its inevitable end. And it is Jack’s simple dream that lends Brokeback Mountain its aching poignancy. It joins a great tradition of yearning already captured in “Somewhere” from West Side Story, Lenny’s rabbits in Of Mice and Men, and that bus ride to Florida in Midnight Cowboy.
Brokeback Mountain is a landmark American film because of its unique devotion to two men. Nothing before it has been so unselfconsciously and compassionately homosexual. Ennis’ conflict of following his desire or being a part of the larger, homoerotically denied world is both heartbreaking and familiar. His is a tragedy born from a society that rejects love in unfamiliar variations, and by the time its leisurely 134 minutes have passed, it has become a cri de coeur on the sad truths of human nature. How many Jacks and Ennises are out there watching the embers fade on their campfire, still hoping the world will grant their love a bit of dignity?