Ang Lee takes the western and romance genres into uncharted territory with Brokeback Mountain, a daring and riveting thought-provoker that deeply resonates. Based on a short story by Annie Proulx, the film follows an illicit homosexual affair between two cowboys over twenty years. It is epic in its scope, but filled with remarkable detail and subtext. Gay couples are no stranger to Hollywood films, but are rarely taken seriously and often treated with a campy indifference. Ang Lee goes deeper and delves into his characters raw emotions. He exposes their fears and desires to the audience without any pretense. Their love is a forbidden love with consequences. The film never loses site of what is at risk. It is a tragic tale, poignant and compelling, set against a glorious Wyoming backdrop.
The story begins in 1963 with two very different cowboys looking for work wrangling sheep. Heath Ledger stars as Ennis Del Mar, a quiet and rugged loner chiseled from the classic western archetype. Jake Gyllenhaal co-stars as Jack Twist, a romantic with dreams of becoming a rodeo star. Both men tackle the brutal work of guiding the sheep over Brokeback Mountain. They bond over the experience and soon find themselves sleeping together. Unsure of what has transpired, they go their separate ways and settle down. Ennis marries his childhood sweetheart, Alma (Michelle Williams). They quickly have two daughters and face an uphill battle against poverty. Jack moves up in the world and marries Lureen (Anne Hathaway), the daughter of a wealthy businessman. They have a son, but he struggles against his sexuality. Years pass and the men reunite with the same passion they had on the mountain. They use Brokeback as the rendezvous for their trysts and embark on a decade’s long affair, but the outside world creeps into their sanctuary and the cowboys are forced to make hard choices about their love.
Brokeback Mountain doesn’t hold back from showing the homosexual relationship between Ennis and Jack. It has a pivotal gay sex scene, which is fairly explicit, but not gratuitous or overdone in any way. What it does concentrate on are close moments between the lead characters, which means there is a lot of kissing and touching. It’s the kind of contact you would see in a traditional romance, but this time it’s between two men. Honestly, these scenes are a bit unnerving; but there is a degree of maturity required to watch this movie. Ang Lee is portraying a romance in full bloom. He’s just not shying away from the physical aspects because it’s between men. The sexual nature of this movie is sure to be controversial. Don’t see Brokeback Mountain with any prejudice or preconceptions. I firmly believe that open-minded adults can watch this film and appreciate it artistically.
Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal really raise the bar with their excellent performances. I don’t put a lot of credence into the difficulty of the sex scenes. Sure, it’s a risky move but there’s so much more brilliance on display. Both characters have deep inner turmoil, but express it in different ways. Heath Ledger is the definition of the macho cowboy. He’s tough as nails and barely speaks above a whisper the entire film. But as the character ages, we begin to see cracks in the veneer. Ledger evolves Ennis into a wounded creature, longing for escape but bound to the ideals of those around him. He’s trapped and it’s brilliantly emoted on screen. Jake Gyllenhaal gives Jack a softer, desperate tone. He’s outward about his affections and completely understandable in his exasperation with Ennis. These are two spectacularly multi-faceted characters. Ledger and Gyllenhaal give the performances of their careers bringing them to life. I believe audiences will be deeply moved by their empathy for these men.
The mountain plays an equally important role in setting the tone for the film. This is one of Ang Lee’s greatest strengths as a director. We see Jack and Ennis battle the tough terrain and understand why they’re so awed by its incredible beauty. It’s a metaphor for the struggle they face against the outside world and themselves. Lee encompasses the visual traits of the epic western stage and skillfully weaves it into the darkest secret of his lead characters. Many filmmakers use the background as an afterthought or a crutch, Ang Lee exploits it is as a catalyst. The circumstances that develop on the mountain are directly related to the difficulty in overcoming it.
Brokeback Mountain is really something new from mainstream Hollywood. Credit must be given to its screenwriters, Pulitzer Prize winner Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove, Terms of Endearment) and his partner Diana Ossana. Their adaptation in the hands of an auteur like Ang Lee is collaborative gold. A lot of skill when into this film and it’s evident in every frame. Brokeback Mountain is a great film that puts a different spin on a universal theme. I just hope that it finds an audience and a modicum of success in this divided era of ‘Red States’ and ‘Blue States’.