Ennis Del Mar: Heath Ledger
Jack Twist: Jake Gyllenhaal
Alma Del Mar: Michelle Williams
Lureen Twist: Anne Hathaway
Cassie: Linda Cardellini
Joe Aguirre: Randy Quaid
Focus Features presents a film directed by Ang Lee. Written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana. Based on the short story by E. Annie Proulx. Running time: 134 min. Rated R (for sexuality, language, nudity and some violence).
Director Ang Lee has long since been a master of subtlety. In Sense and Sensibility he presented the subtleties of British manners. In The Ice Storm he presented the subtle differences between the children of the 60’s and their own children who desperately needed them to be adults during a New England ice storm in the late 70’s. Ride with the Devil depicted the fine line between the civil rights that were being fought for in the Civil War and the rights that were infringed upon against Missouri landowners by the Union Army in the name of western progress. In Hulk… well, there really shouldn’t have been anything subtle about The Hulk, so Lee should have stayed away. Brokeback Mountain presents subtle moments of joy from a secret that has a profound effect on the lives of two men stuck in a world of intolerance and misunderstanding. Of course, if Brokeback focused primarily upon the joy shared between these two men, it would not have the effectiveness that it carries by showing the sacrifice involved in both exploring their joy and, more importantly, by denying it.
Heath Ledger (The Brothers Grimm) plays Ennis Del Mar, a cowboy eking out an existence by hopping from one ranching job to another. During a job watching over open range sheep he meets another cowboy of a more outgoing nature, Jack Twist, portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal (The Day After Tomorrow). Despite Ennis’s introverted nature, “That’s the most I’ve said in about the past three years,” the two men form a bond that encompassed both the emotional and the physical.
With this initial relationship developing in the 60’s, and the rest of their story spanning over the next twenty years, the men realize that when this job has passed so will their liaison. While parting is difficult for them, their world outside the mountain herding is one of intolerance for such behavior between men, and when they part it is to move onto a more “normal” life. Ennis marries only months later to Alma (Michelle Williams, Imaginary Heroes), who desires to rise above the uprooted ranching life that Ennis insists upon. Jack, after a tougher struggle with his unaccepted physical yearnings, marries Lureen (Anne Hathaway, The Princess Diaries), the daughter of a successful Texas farm implement dealer.
After the initial romance between the men, screenwriters Larry McMurtry (Terms of Endearment) and Diana Ossana (Johnson County War TV mini-series), concentrate primarily upon the lives these men lead outside of their forbidden love for each other. Even after they decide to reunite on a regular basis to continue to express their love for each other, the filmmakers focus on the sacrifices they make to keep the true nature of their relationship a secret to their own families, families they were expected to have in the environment in which they lived.
Lee’s subtle touch is invaluable in the telling of these cowboys’ stories. He avoids most gay stereotypes and presents these two men as men. Both characters have chosen to pursue the testosterone driven lives they live. There is a telling scene of Ennis confronting two bikers who are speaking rudely, without regard for his family, who are within earshot during a Fourth of July fireworks display. The two men dwarf Ennis, but he flattens one and runs them off with frightening ferocity. Ennis strikes me as a man who might participate in a gay bashing if it weren’t for the homosexual feelings he harbors himself for Jack.
There is a tenderness to Ennis and Jack’s relationship, it seems Jack is just about the only person in the world Ennis is comfortable enough around to open up to, but the filmmakers treat them as men even when they are together. A boyish wrestling match turns into an all out brawl between the men, with one ending up with a bloody nose and the other with a black eye. When apart both men deal with the denial of their true natures in their own ways, Jack with eagerness to take any opportunity to be with Ennis and Ennis resisting with a brooding disposition.
Their relationship has a profound effect on their families, which subtly feel the tension of the men who must deny themselves what they really want. Although Alma secretly discovers the nature of Ennis’s relationship with Jack, it is his way of life as a rancher that drives a wedge between them as much as his lack of emotional investment in her. It is Jack’s free spirit that draws Lureen to him, and although she does sense something between them, Jack never loses that spirit and can even surprise her once their marriage descends into routine. Jack’s defiance against his father-in-law during a Thanksgiving dinner at their home still brings a smile to Lureen’s face.
Brokeback Mountain is not really a gay rights film. Although there are moments of passion that are bound to make a predominantly straight audience uncomfortable (but only for the same reasons a love scene between two heterosexuals should make an audience uncomfortable), Brokeback is as much about the lives these men live because of their choices (or lack thereof) as it is about their own relationship. It is a painful story, one approached and executed with tenderness rather than having tenderness placed upon it. These men have to live with their secret and Lee does a good job making the audience live with it as well. We share in these men’s sacrifice and love with their shared intimacy instead of observing it from an outsider’s point of view.