Director Ang Lee is a master of repressed love whether between young Taiwanese men in The Wedding Banquet, Jane Austen’s class-conscious Brits in Sense & Sensibility, duty-bound warriors in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or even monsters and scientists in The Hulk. Lee’s delicate touch and poetic cinematography take Annie Proulx’s 30-page story about cowboys who fall into a crevasse of tragic forbidden love, and expands it into a hauntingly bittersweet two-hour-plus visual feast of lingering melancholy and fragile snapshots of happiness against the lonely backdrop of despair.
As in the short story, the main character, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger in a pitch perfect spot-on performance) scrounges up work one summer by herding sheep for a dismissive rancher (Randy Quaid) up at the spectacular vistas of Brokeback Mountain. He is sent out to this task with another poor cowboy, the aspiring rodeo competitor Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) whose easy companionship is a salve for orphaned Ennis’ isolation. When they unexpectedly become much more than friends, they build the foundations of a life-long love that will haunt and change them both forever.
The film lingers over that first summer in 1963 and their passionate reunion four years later, then it speeds by 20 years of their respective life signposts including marriages, children, divorce, jobs, in-laws, relationships; ordinary lives punctuated by their semi-annual weeklong “fishing” trips into the mountains.
Ennis is dragged down by duty as he attempts to make ends meet and to keep together the pretense of a marriage and then of a bachelorhood. In near total emotional isolation, he keeps a white-knuckled lock on his feelings, which bubble up in tenderness towards his daughters and threaten to erupt in violence against anyone else.
Jack, meanwhile, is the more needy heart, stumbling into a marriage to a cowboy princess with a wealthy father. It takes him from the adrenaline highs of rodeo-riding to the confining job of a combine salesman. It is he who cannot comprehend Ennis’ inability to see a world where they could be together. Where Ennis gives all he can, Jack wants so much more. The results tear them up inside and the bitterness ripples through both their lives to a final, moving conclusion.
While groundbreaking and beautiful, this movie falters a step when its slow and deliberate pace nevertheless fails to take the audience into an admittedly very private love beyond their time together on the mountain. Jack is a complicated character and, with the exception of the scene where he confronts his father-in-law, his character development later in the film seems uneven and his hold on Ennis less tenable, perhaps because Lee leaves so much to be said in the silences. We see him going to Mexico to cruise for sex, but we do not see him unguarded with his parents, Ennis or even with wife Lureen (Anne Hathaway) to give us the understanding that we get from Ennis’ scenes with his wife (Michelle Williams) and their daughters.
The depth of all the characters, it should be said, is one of the movie’s many strengths: there is not a person here who does not easily deserve his or her story to be told, especially Lureen (Anne Hathaway), Alma (Michelle Williams), Mrs. Twist (Roberta Maxwell) and Alma Junior (Kate Mara).
And another strength is the simplicity and strong symbolism of the way the story is told. Up on Brokeback Mountain, Jack and Ennis make the rules. At first they do what the rancher told them, camping out near the sheep in violation of the law. But then they understand that they may not own the place or the sheep, but they are in charge and can decide what is right for them — until they have to come down from the mountain and abide by the rules of society. The story-telling is so plain and straightforward that, like the characters’ feelings for one another, at first you do not realize how powerful it is. But by the conclusion, with its definitive, heart-wrenching portrayal of what will always be divided and what can never be, audiences will realize that the story has entered its souls.
This movie benefits from world-class talent as Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Larry McMurtry, keeps the cowboy feel authentic while adapting the screenplay from fellow Pulitzer-winner Proulx’s short story, all under the direction of Oscar winner Lee. With fine performances by all and an Oscar-worthy scope, “Brokeback Mountain” is a solid addition to the canon of tragic loves and it is an immensely moving portrait of joy begetting sadness, pain and fleetingly a small and fragile ray of hope.
Parents should know that the movie deals with mature issues, including bigotry, homosexuality, and adultery. There is nudity, sex between committed couples, adultery, references to prostitution. Characters use frequent profanity, they drink and smoke, in one scene they use drugs. Characters drink to excess, they get violent, and they brawl. There is the frequent threat of brutality and a brief scene of a bloody murder. A character gives an explicit account of torture and murder. There are angry and violent fight scenes between couples.
Families who see this movie should talk about the hope and despair that follow in the wake of a life-changing encounter. When Ennis describes how this one relationship had made him who he was, how might he imagine that he would have been different if he had never gone up on to Brokeback Mountain? In the scene in the trailer with “Junior”, how is Ennis different and what might this foretell about his future? Why is the question Ennis asks her so important? Do you think Ennis and Jack’s story would change today versus when the story is taking place?
Visual cues in this movie are very important and families might talk about these subtle touches, such as the way Ennis’ life shrinks as seen by ever smaller interior spaces, about the smiles -few and far between–and who they are between, and about eye contact, which Ennis in his isolation uses sparingly and Jack in his recklessness uses often.
Families looking for more of Lee’s elegant storytelling and atmospheric beauty will enjoy his early Taiwanese movies, especially Eat Drink Man Woman and the aforementioned Wedding Banquet. For those looking for more big sky, cowboy stories, McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove is a splendid read and the miniseries is very well done.
A partial list of other films on the theme of socially unacceptable loves and the emotional wreckage that can ensue would include: the moving Boys Don’t Cry, the multi-tissue infidelity study Breaking the Waves, the lifelong affair of Same Time Next Year, or the inter-racial/homosexual loves in Far from Heaven. All of these movies have mature themes and are not for the very young or more sensitive viewers.
Thanks to guest critic AME.