Upon its release in 2005, Brokeback Mountain generated considerable controversy with its re-imagining of the Western as a tragic homosexual romance. With two of Hollywood’s biggest up and coming stars in the roles of the star-crossed cowboy lovers, director Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) was taking a big risk, and this film could have been a huge commercial flop. Thankfully, incendiary performances from Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal along side the visual awe of Lee’s direction turned this film into a beautiful testament to love in all its forms and the tragedy of a world that sets artificial boundaries on our definitions of love. Helping to usher in a new generation of films and film-makers that were willing to deal with the taboo subject of homosexuality, Brokeback Mountain still remains as a ground-breaking artifact of cinema that is only held back by a lack of clear editing that allows the film’s ending to drag to a close.
Brokeback Mountain, based off a short story by Annie Proulx (adapted to the screen by Lonesome Dove‘s Larry McMurtry and Diana Osana), recounts the decades long saga of the passionate and tragic love affair between two ranch hands in the 1960’s American West. Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) have been hired to sheepherd one summer in Wyoming on the titular Brokeback Mountain. Ennis is quiet and reserved in contrast to the youthful exuberance of Jack. On one fateful cold night, Jack invites Ennis in to his tent from the cold, and an intense and physical love affair begins. Ennis is never able to admit that he loves Jack, and when the summer ends, the two go their separate ways. The film continues on for the next twenty years as Jack and Ennis get married, Jack to the rich Lorene (Anne Hathaway) and Ennis to the subdued girl next door Alma (Michelle Williams). We get an intimate and heart-wrenching portrait of men forced to live a life of lies and unhappiness in a society that is unwilling to accept them and in Ennis’s case has conditioned them to not even accept themselves.
Ang Lee transforms the iconic American West (although it’s actually Canada) into a character that is as nearly as important to the experience of this film as Jack and Ennis. Shot beautifully on location in the Canadian Rockies, not since the hey-days of John Ford has a director been so in tune to the natural beauty of the scenery of these films as a tool to enhance the emotional power of the story being told. Brokeback Mountain would have been an important and powerful film on its own, but the composition of a tragic love story along the lines of Rome and Juliet and Titanic interposed with haunting images of the unchecked wilderness and majestic mountains morphs the film into something far more than the sum of its parts. Lee is especially masterful in the way he contrasts the earthly beauty and joy of the tranquil scenes in the mountains and forests against the anguish and pain of the restricted lives each man will live in towns and among society.
Brokeback Mountain received three Oscar nominations in the acting category and rightly so. Had he not died such an unfortunately young death, Heath Ledger would have become one of the most respected names in Hollywood, and this is the film where his star really began to rise. Ledger’s performance is a master-class in restraint and stoicism while still conveying the deep-rooted fear and anxiety that has been instilled in him since he was a young boy. It can occasionally be difficult to understand Ledger’s mumbles, but that simply adds another layer to a man who has been raised to keep who he is as secret as he can. Jake Gyllenhaal brings more life and intensity to Jack although that is very much his character. Where Ennis is the stoic and repressed figure, Jack is far more vibrant and full of a joie de vivre that years of suffering from lies and loneliness can’t rob. He’s also quite capable of evoking the anger and frustration called for when Jack has finally had enough and wants Ennis and Jack to be open about who they truly are. Michelle Williams is simply a scene-stealer herself as Ennis’s unloved and desolately lonely wife.
One of the most interesting themes of the story that a lot of reviewers are unable to grasp is that this isn’t an essentially homosexual love story, but rather, much like Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy, it paints a picture where the lines of sexuality are a little more blurred. Both Jack and Ennis are essentially bisexual, although the amount of happiness either is able to find from women is quite variable. While it would seem that Ennis is the more masculine and overtly heterosexual of the two, he experiences the least happiness and satisfaction from the women in his life. There was never a moment on screen when it appeared that a woman was truly able to make him happy. Jack on the other hand is the one who initiates the homosexual encounter with Ennis and is the most outspoken about wanting to be with Ennis as the film progresses, yet Jack appears to simply be aggressive sexually whether it’s men or women. The subtlety of the fluidity of sexuality displayed in this film is an important aspect of the film that far too many people don’t notice.
Unfortunately, the film’s final acts draw on for far too long as the portrait of Jack and Ennis’s incomplete lives with wives and children is milked for everything they can til it stops having as much meaning as earlier sequences. The film is able to find its footing again with its tragic final moments but by then, you may be ready for the film to end. Those minor quibbles should not sway you away from seeing this beautiful and achingly tender film. Ang Lee not only brought a mainstream same-sex love story to the big screen, but he also created the first great western in over a decade since Unforgiven. Heath Ledger was a star that was taken from us too soon, but for all the sadness his passing leaves us, we still have this haunting gem to look back on and remember him. Here is a love story that will stand the test of time and remain one of the true treasures of modern cinema.
Final Score: A-