Love is a force of nature.
This movie must be a nightmare to bigots everywhere. It would have been easy to dismiss it as hype if only it was poorly made, but this is one of the best films ever to deal with homosexuality, much because it makes us recognize it as something that isn’t all that alien. Written one year before Matthew Shepard was beaten to death in Wyoming for being gay, E. Annie Proulx’s short story showed how dangerous and difficult it is for anyone who’s gay and living in very conservative neighborhoods. When it was finally turned into a film, everybody involved in the production did his very best not to ruin it. The bigots would not get any free shots.
The story begins in 1963, when two young cowboys, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), are hired to look after a herd of sheep over one year on Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming. It’s a tough, demanding and lonely job. The cowboys are not very talkative, but they do what is required of them and get along fine. Then one night after hitting the whiskey bottle, the boys get a little drunk, end up together in a tent… and one thing leads to another. The next morning they decide that this thing they’ve got going is only between them and of no concern to others. A year passes and the cowboys say goodbye to each other, joining civilization again. They get married to women they like, Ennis has kids, but the ghost of Brokeback Mountain is always there to haunt them. Four years later, Jack and Ennis get together again and find themselves overwhelmed by passion. Over the following years, they go away on “fishing trips”, little knowing that Ennis’s wife Alma (Michelle Wiliams) knows what’s going on and that their romance is headed for disaster. Not that that should come as a surprise. At one point, Ennis tells Jack a story about how his dad took him and his brother to see the body of a man who had been beaten to death; the experience was supposed to teach the Del Mar boys that bad things happen to men who choose not to marry women but to shack up with men. Ennis certainly took notice, but there are times when Jack forgets who and where he is and starts fantasizing about the two of them buying a ranch and growing old together. He finds it difficult to hide who he is, and that has consequences.
Actors are well served by the beauty of the mountainous landscape
This sure is a tragedy and Gustavo Santaolalla’s country music helps tug at our heartstrings – but director Ang Lee never treats his material in a cheap and unworthy way. The writers also make sure to show how badly Ennis hurts Alma; by hiding his true nature out of fear for his own life he accidentally ruins his wife’s life. The women of this tale are not as important as the men, but neither are they forgotten. Williams makes us care for Alma and what she’s going through, and admire her for raising the kids while her husband is off with his gay lover. Gyllenhaal is very good as Jack and Ledger is quite an eye-opener; who knew that the punk from A Knight’s Tale (2001) had it in him to create such a convincingly, quietly passionate character? The actors are well served by the awesome beauty of the mountaineous landscape and the period details of the stark working-class surroundings.
Some people may think this film is important because it gives an American icon, “the Marlboro Man”, a touch of pink but that’s not what it should be reduced to. It should primarily be remembered for being such a finely crafted slice of life and for showing director Lee and Ledger at their most persuasive.
Brokeback Mountain 2005-U.S. 134 min. Color. Produced by James Schamus, Diana Ossana. Directed by Ang Lee. Screenplay: Larry McMurtry, Diana Ossana. Novella: E. Annie Proulx. Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto. Music: Gustavo Santaolalla. Song: ”A Love That Will Never Grow Old” (Gustavo Santaolalla, Bernie Taupin). Cast: Heath Ledger (Ennis Del Mar), Jake Gyllenhaal (Jack Twist), Randy Quaid (Joe Aguirre), Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway, Graham Beckel.
Trivia: Gus Van Sant and Joel Schumacher allegedly considered directing the film.
Oscars: Best Director, Adapted Screenplay, Original Score. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Drama), Director, Screenplay, Song. BAFTA: Best Film, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Gyllenhaal). Venice: Golden Lion.
Quote: “I wish I knew how to quit you.” (Gyllenhaal to Ledger)
Last word: “I teach at Columbia University and one of the classes I teach is on the Western. And I love Westerns. But look. I take my daughter sometimes to Yankees games and during the seventh inning stretch they often play the Village People’s ‘YMCA’ and 50,000 Yankees fans stand up and move their arms to the shape of the letters. And then we all sing the national anthem. I feel like there have been a lot of precursors that have done their share to nuance the image of the cowboy long before we produced ‘Brokeback Mountain’.” (Schamus, Towleroad)