A film review by Craig J. Koban

Rank: #6

RANK: #2



2005, R, 134 mins.

Ennis Del Mar: Heath Ledger / Jack Twist: Jake Gyllenhaal / Alma Del Mar: Michelle Williams / Lureen Twist: Anne Hathaway / Joe Aguirre: Randy Quaid

Directed by Ang Lee /  Written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana / Based on the short story by E. Annie Proulx


There is a moment of such heart wrenching sadness that cuts immediately to the heart of Ang Lee’s BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN.  It is a brief and simple exchange between two young Wyoming sheepherders during a quiet moment of reflection.  The two cowboys – Ennis and Jack – have just had sex the night before.  They can’t explain why it happened; it just did.  Later, when the two men try to face their obvious feelings for one another, the only way Ennis can is by relaying a childhood memory to Jack:


There were these two old guys ranched up together, down home. Earl and Rich. They were pretty tough ol' birds. Anyway they... they found Earl dead in an irrigation ditch. Took a tire iron to 'im. Spurred him up, drug him 'round by his dick 'till it pulled off…. My daddy, he made sure me and brother seen it. Hell for all I know, he done the job.”

Jack responds with an acceptable level of incredulity.  Yet, this story serves a larger purpose for the two of them.  As time passes Ennis grows realistic about the future of their relationship.  He sort of pitifully tells Jack, “Bottom line is...we're around each other an'...this thing, it grabs hold of us again...at the wrong place...at the wrong time...and we're dead.” 

Here lies the true epicenter of the film.  Ennis and Jack come to grips with the fact that, yes, they yearn for one another as much as any pair of lovers would, but there are at the mercy of time and circumstance.  The two awaken to their real passion in one another, but the singular problem – especially with Ennis – is that they were born and bred in a volatile climate where they were instructed to demonize homosexuals.  Ennis' story reveals this truth.  To be gay is to be hunted down - to be a dead man.  How could Ennis ever have a life with the only real, true love of his life when faced with that bitter reality?  How can you dedicate yourself to loving someone else when you’ve been conditioned to hate yourself for who you are?  Never once in the film does either admit to being gay.  “You know I ain’t queer, “ Ennis matter-of-factly tells Jack.  He responds rather dryly, “Neither am I.”  The irony and sentiments here are so unavoidable tragic.

Lee’s BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN focuses on the one elemental aspect of the human emotional spectrum – yearning.  The two cowboys in the film, played in two of the most brave and courageous performances I’ve seen by Heath ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, feel passionately about one another to want to spend a lifetime together.  Their misfortune is one of the most ageless in terms of popular fiction – they long to be together, but inevitably can’t due to outside variables that they have absolutely no control over.  Those barriers are the times and societal norms they live in, but the misery that underlines their romance is a strong and unrelenting as any other that I’ve witnessed.  Like Romeo and Juliet, they are done in not because of willful obstacles in their way.  No, they simply can’t be together because of external pressures.  Denying one’s true passion and the concepts of illicit, forbidden love are powerful archetypes as old as literature itself.  The sex of the participants, ultimately, does not matter.  Is their sorrow any less palpable because they’re gay?

BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN has been laughingly referred to as a “gay cowboy film.”  If you are tired of that sort of incessant and infantile, late-night-talk-show host rhetoric about the film, then you are clearly not alone.  Yes, the film has characters that display obvious homosexual leanings, but to ignorantly and narrowly describe it as simplistically as many stand up comics have been lately is ultimately unjust and misleading.  If anything, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN – beyond it’s lame cataloguing by some shortsighted critics – is a poignant, endearing, touching, and heart-rending story about love and denying oneself the most basic human desire.  Ennis and Jack easily garner our sympathy.  They love one another, but can’t discover a way to make it work.  The fact that the film has two men in love almost feels largely irrelevant.  During one of the film’s most uneasy and distressing moments, Jack pleads with Ennis, “I wish I could get over you.”  He really does not want to, of course, but what other option is afforded to him and his lover?  Exposure of their true love to the world, considering the context of their times, would be shattering.  They are essentially doomed.

The film begins in Wyoming in 1963 (a wise placement of time period, which accentuates the later pathos of the story).  Jack (Gyllenhaal) and Ennis (Ledger) are in their late teens and find themselves stuck together on a job herding sheep along a lush mountainside.  Ennis is the introvert of the two, whereas Jack seems to like to speak his mind on any troubling subject matter any time he feels fit.  Ennis can barely be asked to utter two or three syllables.  The two eat, drink, sleep, tend to the herd and then eat, drink, sleep, then…one night…have passionate and heated sex.  It occurs so suddenly, so much so that both men don’t seem to even understand it themselves.  They never once think it through; they simply give into their desires.

The next day the two seem to become ardent homophobics, neither speaking to one another nor conversing in anyway.  There is an odd distance between the two men. When they do finally find a need to address one another, Ennis sort of sidesteps the previous night’s sex as an idle fling that they will never even think about again.  Obviously, he is deluding the both of them. There is an unmistakable spark there, whether they want to see it or not.  When their summer position is over, they put on a false façade of male bravado and part ways without even so much as a good-bye or a handshake. 

This one summer soon gives way to several years.  During this time something peculiar happens to the two of them – they both find themselves in hetero-relationships that both lead to marriage and children.  They, for all intensify purposes, have settled down into a life of typical, acceptable normalcy.  The two women in their respective lives, Alma (Michelle Williams), and Lureen (Anne Hathaway) never once discover Ennis and Jack’s one night “fling.”  However, fate for Ennis and Jack soon steps in and they find themselves reunited with one another for another get-together in Wyoming.  Very, very quickly it becomes clear that their one-night encounter was so much more than that.  The two go out for a night (Ennis tells his wife he may not come home if the booze has its way).  Reality soon creeps in and the men find their desires rekindled.  They love one another, obviously much more than they do their wives.  They soon cross paths more and more.  Ennis tells Alma that he and Jack go on lots of fishing trips for some male bonding.  She soon begins to wonder what really is going on when she realizes that, wait a tick, Ennis never seems to come home with fish.

BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN was based on a short story by E. Annie Proulx and was adapted by Larry McMurty and Diana Ossana, both recent recipients of the Golden Globe for their work here.  Their screenplay is so elemental, so frank, so true, and so honest with its subject matter.  The players involved and how the narrative plays out could be unconventional to some, but the deeper truths that this film brings out to the forefront should be able to resonant with anyone, gay or straight.  The characters themselves are so nuanced and well written.  They often suggest thousands of emotions with only the smallest of words or the slightest of gestures.  McMurty and Ossana’s dialogue is as sparse, yet emotionally evocative, as a Steinbeck novel.  BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN has ordinary people trapped in extraordinary circumstances that they can’t even control or describe.  They inhabit the moment completely, even if it could potentially destroy their lives.  How this film could not move anyone is beyond me.

This, of course, brings me to the film’s “controversial” overtones.  This is largely a media created hot button phrase to create a quick framework to describe the film, but there is honestly no controversy to be had here.  Other great films have utilized gay and lesbian themes (FAR FROM HEAVEN was also about closeted homosexuals during the 1950’s who lived in a world where people would never accept them, and LOST AND DELIRIOUS also dealt with similar themes – albeit more in a modern setting – with reform school girls accepting their true passions).  This theme of homosexual love occurring in a bigoted society that shuns them is hardly new material for the cinema. 

No, the “controversy” seems spurred largely (at least from all media accounts) by the religious moral right.  Their overt criticism of the film is flimsy and shallow at best, seeing as it has often been articulated without any of them having paid a dime to see one frame of it (it seems, with other controversial works, that chastising a movie without investing in it in any way is the easier path).  If anything, staunch conservatives should be forced to view this film as a meditation on intolerance and ignorance.  Love is love, no matter who the participants are, and how could this ever truly be damaging to anyone?  I have often had to endure the inflammatory rhetoric of how homosexuality is a sin that can destroy the fabric of peoples’ lives.  If anything, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN observably and wisely points out that the real danger and sin to society is the archaic and backwards societal norms themselves.

Ennis and Jack love one another deeply and don’t seem to want to hurt anyone willfully.  However, they are essentially forced to subvert their desires by a society that hates their kind and reveres being gay as a reprehensibly evil.  As a result, their love is forbidden.  This, in turn, forces them to try to adopt a life of complacency because society deems it “normal” and “correct.”  This, as the film displays, has adverse effects on the women the men marry and their families.  Ennis and Jack never wanted to live a lie, but what other options did they have…really?  That’s the tragedy of the film. They wanted a life together but the realities of the 60’s and 70’s made that next to impossible.  Again, the real sin is not their homosexuality – it’s society’s rigid intolerance of their wishes that propels them into making choices they never wanted to make. 

Funny, but I always seem to hear moral conservatives discuss how Ennis and Jack lead a lifestyle that’s shameful, but they never seem to take exception about the man who was accosted and killed because of his homosexuality in the story that Ennis relayed from his childhood.  The depressing part – even in our socio-political times – is that we still have a climate where we continue to needlessly argue about issues of gay rights (which, in my mind, are deserved) to the point where nothing really has changed since the times Ennis and Jack lived in.  If CRASH had the potential to make its viewers better people, then maybe BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN has a similar power to make people re-evaluate their backwards views of a certain segment of society.  The film encourages its viewers to see love as love, without any of the silly, useless, and derogatory subcategories.

The film was directed by Ang Lee, who has emerged – more than any other filmmaker of the last 10 years – to be one of the more fascinating in terms of his variety.  Just look at his resume.  He has made a 1970's period drama (THE ICE STORM); a Civil War historical film (RIDE WITH THE DEVIL); a Jane Austen romance (SENSE AND SENSIBILITY); a kung-fu fantasy (CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON), and, yes, he even found time to make a super-hero action picture in HULK.  BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN continues to facilitate his reputation as a director that is boundless in terms of time period, characters, or settings.  He directs the film with such an effortless confidence and eye for sensitive and evocative detail that it’s kind of amazing; it’s as if he’s worked in this genre for all is career.  He takes the milieu of many genres (the sweeping vistas of the classic westerns and the emotion of a stirring romance) and sort of reinterprets it for a post-modern taste and flavour.  The film feels simultaneously foreign and familiar.

Lee’s skill with the film is a textbook exercise in restraint and subtle filmmaking economy.  Directed too broadly then the film’s romance could have easily deserved the label “gay cowboy movie."  If the performances drifted too far into stereotype, then the drama would have resulted in being unintentionally funny.  At face value, Lee crafts performances and moments of assured complexity and gentleness.  The love scenes don’t feel gratuitous and invasive.  They play off as naturally and tastefully as any other hetero-love story to the point where you grow less and less conscious of the fact that it is a gay love story.  It simply becomes a love story.

The performances, most of which are career highs, are evocative of placing the film in proper emotional context.  Gyllenhaal, an actor that has emerged as the best young one of his generation – is remarkable as Jack, as is Ledger in what easily is his best work ever as Ennis.  He impressed me earlier in 2005 with his manic, drug hazed performance in the lacklustre LORDS OF DOGTOWN, but here he completely inhabits Ennis’ introverted despair, loneliness, and isolation within himself.  However, the film does not just see victims in Ennis and Jack but also has the fortitude and time to sympathize with their wives.  Michelle Williams is also very strong in what may be the film’s most challenging role.  She could have easily come across as the gay-hating, embittered wife who learns dark secrets about her husband.  Her role is more layered than that.  She despises here husband less because he’s gay and more because he basically cheated on her.  In this way, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is surprisingly democratic.

As long as you are able to ignore the unmitigated hype and silly press slanting of the film, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN emerges as a classic story of misunderstood love and further reveals itself to be one of the better romance stories of recent memory.  It’s an emotionally charged and deeply affecting film that begs its audience to not typecast its narrative into easily tidy and demeaning categories.  Forget the narrow-minded and insultingly shallow conservative views of the film as a work of immoral angst.  BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is many things; it’s an unforgettable tale of human love, misery, and despair; it’s a beautifully shot and acted work of the fragility of the human condition; and, most importantly, it’s a distressing story of unfulfilled love that explores how people should be more tolerant and accepting of others without directly preaching that sentiment.  The film is a masterpiece of remoteness and inner isolation.  It’s not a “gay cowboy movie.”  It’s so much more universal and heart breaking with its themes to be just that.


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