"Gay cowboy movie" is a flippant description that easily identifies Brokeback Mountain, but anyone who's seen the movie knows the label isn't entirely accurate: the two main characters aren't, technically, either gay or cowboys. One is a rodeo rider, the other an itinerant ranch hand; they work herding sheep, not cows; and both date, marry, and pursue women, before and after they hook up with each other.
OK, now that we've cleared up what this movie is not, here's what it is:
Brokeback Mountain: A Romance
A love story about two people -- male people -- who meet on a summer job, teaming to guard sheep as they graze the high pastures on a Wyoming mountain They're isolated, doing a rough job in beautiful yet rugged surroundings.
An evening of boozy campfire chat and a sudden rainstorm combine to push the two guys together, and pent-up feelings explode in a rough and urgent coupling. This isn't any hearts-and-flowers seduction -- the guys tussle and romp like young wildcats, but there's no question that it's mutual.
The morning after, both men assert that neither is 'queer.' Once they've agreed on that point, they continue their romance, promising that what happens on the mountain, stays on the mountain. Easier said than done. Because this isn't just a physical thing -- an experimental fling, to satisfy lustful curiosity. These guys are made for each other.
Life Goes On
So the summer ends, and their affair ends, and their parting is painful. Each tries to get on with his normal life, but there's a terrible sense of loss and longing.
Ennis marries his fiancée Alma (Michelle Williams) and settles down as planned, but something is missing which he denies and ignores. He dulls his pain in the daily drudgery of scraping by, trying to support a growing family. Jack also marries, a saucy rodeo stunt rider (Anne Hathaway), and starts working for his father-in-law's business. He can give up the precarious rodeo circuit, and life is comfortable.
But it's not enough, and after a few years he contacts Ennis, whose excitement in anticipation of their reunion is both amusing and painful to witness. They settle into a kind of 'same time next year' pattern, continuing with their normal routine of work and family, while meeting for occasional "fishing trips" on Brokeback Mountain.
Ennis's wife, Alma is baffled and increasingly resentful -- her experience doesn't offer any clues on how to deal with an affair she can't understand. All she knows is, her husband never comes home with any fish. Jack's wife, Lureen, focuses on business, becoming more distant from the husband she thought loved her, yet who is so often inexplicably absent.
The story follows Ennis and Jack over a couple of decades, and, like any love story about genuine people, emotions run the gamut -- in no particular order, there's passion and remorse, guilt and grief, joy, rage, exuberance, tenderness, humor, bickering, camaraderie….and, yes, agony and ecstasy.
Glimpses into the childhoods of both men are brief and wrenching, showing how their repression and loneliness was instilled early.
This movie is both beautiful and heartbreaking. The stark beauty of the landscape highlights the isolation of these characters, both literally and metaphorically, and their yearning is palpable. Their world is wild, lonely, and perilous, which about sums up their relationship.
The young cast is outstanding, and displays a real depth of talent in subtle and nuanced performances.
Heath Ledger's performance is a revelation to anyone who might only have seen him in such entertaining but lightweight fare as A Knight's Tale (2001) or as the earnest young hero in the fantasy series Roar (1997). Ledger's Ennis is wound so tight he barely speaks -- he is laconic to the point of muteness. Yet Ledger conveys volumes in his silences, a world of hurt in everything unspoken.
(ASIDE: Australian actors tend to be real chameleons -- I didn't even recall that Ledger was Australian until I saw a brief interview where he spoke in his natural voice. This busy young actor stars in 5 movies released in 2005, when he also fathered a daughter, with his Brokeback costar Michelle Williams.)
Most of the awards buzz surrounds Ledger for best actor, but Jake Gyllenhaal is also exceptional. As Jack he is the romantic, an easy-going charmer seeking love after a terribly lonely childhood. He ignites the passion between the two men, and continues to fan the flames of their relationship over the years. Jack recognizes his feelings before Ennis, and he's the one who initiates, who takes the risk of reaching out. No small risk for anyone, but particularly perilous in that time and place. Gyllenhaal makes the relationship seem inevitable and irreplaceable.
Both men were in their early 20s when shooting this film, yet age credibly over the decades of the story -- years and experience evoked not with any (obvious) age makeup, but through a subtle coarsening of the skin and more weary, beaten-down postures.
A dangerous kiss. Jack asleep on his feet 'like a horse,' Ennis notes, before taking his leave. The aching poignancy of two old flannel shirts. The stunning vistas of Brokeback Mountain.
After seeing the film, some questions arise. Many viewers have wondered if:
- The revelation near the end of the film is what really occurred, or what the character imagines? (ambiguous, open to interpretation)
- Brokeback Mountain really exists? (no; the Canadian Rockies stood in for the eponymous and fictional Wyoming mountain.)
Credits and Kudos
Ang Lee is a director who deliberately explores different film genres in every project. From Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to Sense And Sensibility, The Hulk to Brokeback Mountain, Lee's films are widely-diverse in tone and settings, but all share elements of meticulous spaciousness and sensitivity to character.
The movie is based on the short story by E. Annie Proulx (Pulitzer prize-winner for The Shipping News); Larry McMurty (Last Picture Show, Lonesome Dove) and Diana Ossana (Streets of Laredo, Johnson County War) teamed on the screenplay.
Awards: In the run-up to the Oscars, Brokeback Mountain is dominating the early awards -- it's already been named best film by the New York Film Critics Circle and several other critics' groups, and dominated the nominations for other awards, including 7 Golden Globe nominations and Screen Actors Guild nominations for best actor (Ledger), supporting actor (Gyllenhaal), and best supporting actress (Michelle Williams)