Ang Lee’s masterful new film Brokeback Mountain, which deservedly won the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Film Festival, presents a real challenge to write about. There are the dangers of praising the movie too highly, of wanting to share the intense cinematic pleasures it brings, at the risk of spoiling discoveries for readers who’ve yet to see it.
I don’t think I’m giving too much away to mention that, over the ending credits, a Willie Nelson song segues into one by Rufus Wainwright. Lee’s musical choices are apt throughout, but the combination of Willie, with all of his “outlaw” persona connotations, and the stylistically idiosyncratic Wainwright, who plays a sort of slow saloon song on the piano, becomes an emotionally resonant motif for the qualities that make Brokeback Mountain so thrilling, so perceptive.
Larry McMurtry, no stranger to the collision of old West values with changing mores, and his screenwriting partner Diana Ossana adapted Annie Proulx’s 30-page short story from her collection Close Range. The writers couldn’t have asked for a better director than Lee. Born in Taiwan, Lee has shown a propensity, both in The Ice Storm and Sense and Sensibility, for recreating the essences of cultures vastly different from his own. Here, the filmmaker shows such ease in navigating the interior of the American West, the high altitudes of Wyoming, the rodeos and honkytonks of Texas; he has, it would seem, a native’s grasp of the myth-making that’s inevitable in these landscapes, yet Lee never loses the perspective of the intimate.
The movie begins in 1963 (although the dusty, faded visuals at the start suggest the Depression-era photography of Walker Evans) and spans twenty years in the lives of two cowboys, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and the delightfully named Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal). They become sheepherders for a summer on a mountaintop. In these early scenes of fording the flock across streams and over hillsides, the filmmakers let atmosphere establish what words cannot. The sparse plucking of nylon guitar strings in Gustavo Santaolalla’s original score, and the way that cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto composes shots of the pastoral beauty of fir trees on the left of the frame, juxtaposing the lush green foreground against the beckoning blue distance of a mountain range on the horizon, are as integral to our understanding of the story as the men who shepherd in silence.
Brokeback Mountain may be popularly misidentified as a film about “gay cowboys.” It is, however, much more than that. The first sexual encounter between Jack and Ennis is almost purely animal. They struggle and fight before one takes the other, and the only tenderness lies in how soundly Jack sleeps afterward – the look of relief and contentment on his face. The next afternoon when the men, both aged 19, obliquely bring up what took place the night before, Ennis, square-jawed and taciturn, grunts, “Ya know I ain’t queer.”
“Me neither,” Jack replies. Yet that night, in the pup tent again, the men move toward a tentative first kiss, the beginning of a response to an unarticulated, scarcely comprehended need. Lee, McMurtry, and Ossana portray this awakening realistically, passionately yet without prurience.
(The speech patterns, too, are authentic. Ennis and Jack speak in colorfully laconic sentences where the subject pronouns are missing, as in “don’t get much sleep, tell ya that.” That all the actors, not just Ledger and Gyllenhaal, have mastered the Western cadences merits kudos for the dialect coach Joy Ellison.)
Although the men exist as a couple in the isolation of the mountain, they have no blueprint for how to go forward either as lovers or friends when the summer is over. And at that juncture, Brokeback Mountain’s real subject emerges: how life pulls us away – from who we are, from who we love, from what’s most important to us – how life circumstance impels us elsewhere from our ideal, a condition by no means the exclusive pitfall of one orientation.
In love with Jack, Ennis nonetheless marries Alma, a homely, small town girl, dishrag plain, and settles with her into a traditional domestic life. Even here, Lee invites us to reconsider what we think we know. At a 4th of July picnic, Ennis stands up to two bikers who are swearing loudly (in sexually derogatory terms) in front of his wife and young daughters. Alma, off to the side with the girls in her arms, seems amazed and pleased by his commanding roar. Lee photographs Ledger against a sky of bursting firecrackers, an image clearly meant to be iconic: this blond-haired all-American male, a staunch defender of family and moral values – is gay, or at least bisexual. The movie has empathy for the double lives of closeted husbands (who are also devoted fathers), and that must be a first at the multiplex.
As Jack Twist, the blue denim-clad Gyllenhaal has a self-assured, almost predatory look, symmetrically in contrast to Ennis’s wounded, vulnerable air. Gyllenhaal uses his eyes to express a range of emotions, and he conveys more with fewer means, perhaps better than any other actor his age (24 at the time of filming). Gyllenhaal’s naturalistic approach to creating a character has often been the best thing about the movies he’s been in. He had some nice moments in the inert, apolitical Jarhead, he alone escaped embarrassment in Proof, but nothing he’s done until now has had such depth. Similarly, Ledger, who gave a cantankerously witty performance this year, as a Svengali of skateboarding, in Catherine Hardwicke’s underrated Lords of Dogtown, surprised me with the maturity that he brings to playing Ennis.
No small accomplishment, the film convinces as a love story.
In the lesser roles of the three women in the men’s lives, Anne Hathaway, Michelle Williams, and Linda Cardellini are superb. Williams, as Alma, transcends the limitations of the “wife” caricature. There’s a brilliantly choreographed sequence of Alma discovering Ennis’s homosexuality, when she and Jack and her husband, without missing a beat, sail through the upkeep of appearances. “I got a son,” Jack relates to Alma, in those McMurtrian phrases that paradoxically conceal and reveal, “He’s 8 months old – he smiles a lot.” The filmmakers neither skimp on Alma’s sense of betrayal nor do they paint her as a victim. Hathaway, with pitch perfect Texas twang, buries every trace of her Princess Diaries pedigree; she’s wholly believable as a bull-riding rodeo gal whom the course of time strikingly transforms. I’d love to quote the opening line she uses on Jack, but I won’t.
My one complaint about Brokeback Mountain is that there isn’t nearly enough screen time for Cardellini’s Cassie, a vivacious, fun-loving young woman who sidles up to Ennis, after Alma has divorced him. Late in the film, Cassie meets Ennis’s teenaged daughter, the painfully shy Alma Jr., in a roadhouse. By now it’s 1980 or so, Urban Cowboy vogue is in the culture, and as Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” spins on a jukebox, Cassie leans in toward Alma Jr. at the table they share and gently asks, “You don’t think I’m the right one for your daddy?” I wish that this moment had gone on longer, that Lee had dawdled over atmosphere a bit more languorously (as he does in the early scenes). There’s so much richness in the brief exchange between the two women, and I wanted to see Ennis and Cassie dance together. Because what will Ennis be like, how will he conduct himself with a woman who isn’t his wife, a woman so much better looking than Alma Sr.?
And in a scene as stunning as it is casually ambling, Alma Jr. announces her upcoming wedding to a man who works on an oilrig. Though she seems joyful, she’s 19, and it’s apparent that the only way out of the restrictive home she shares with her mother and stepfather is to get married. Ennis asks about her prospective husband: “Does he love you?” It’s a question that any father might reasonably ask his daughter; here, the question takes on layer upon layer of poignancy and truth. Ennis didn’t (couldn’t) fully love his own wife; he’s asking in the hope that Alma Jr. won’t marry a man like himself. The insight – to say nothing of the courage – of this film makes it a masterpiece. Or close enough. – NPT
December 6, 2005
An alternate version of this review appears in Northwest Asian Weekly.