Many will fixate on Brokeback Mountain's novelty factor: the mind's-eye provocation of two sagebrush cowboys in chaps and Stetsons getting it on beside the campfire.
But hopefully the sight of two Hollywood stars kissing and feigning sodomy will not eclipse Ang Lee's exquisite film, which deserves an audience for achieving the nearly impossible feat of making a love story with depth and a devastating meditation on loneliness and repression.
Based on a slim Annie Proulx short story originally published in the New Yorker, Brokeback Mountain doesn't suffer from its enlargement to feature-length film under the able hands of screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana.
The film opens in 1963 Wyoming as two drifters in search of work share a mountainside for the season. Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) is assigned to tend camp and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) to watch over a flock of sheep. The men work apart and then come together to share dinner each night, with designated cook Ennis opening a proverbial can of beans and Jack passing around a bottle of whiskey. The contrast of the two men toys with comedy: Jack is Montgomery Clift pretty, looking too slim and boyish for his butch cowboy drag. Ennis wears the cowboy mythos better, boasting the male gold standard of emotional reticence and deep silences, a man's man who keeps his feelings in check. In Lee's haunting command of physical space and Ledger's fine performance, we grasp the true nature of Brokeback Mountain, about a loneliness peculiar to the West's wide-open spaces and a scraping-by life, but also the enforced solitude of being a man.
The more tragic of the two, Ennis, is a man so wounded and contained he seems to lock all sentiment behind his sealed lips and clenched jaw. He and Jack bond over mutually haunted family lives. Jack is a victim of his chalky Pentecostal parents, and Ennis was similarly cast to the wind. His parents died when he was a child, and he was raised by siblings until they left for marriages and lives of their own.
The men are economically expendable, too: hired hands on tap when needed who bow their heads like slaves when the master talks, not daring to make eye contact with their superiors. Director Lee conveys the restless sadness of ambling from town to town, trying to scrape together enough of a dowry for a farm that never comes as Ennis squanders his dreams for small gulps of paradise on Brokeback Mountain. In 1963, Jack and Ennis are already anachronisms. They chafe at their boss's unethical behavior and defend women from the profane talk of two biker types crashing a family Fourth of July picnic. Out of place everywhere, fitting in nowhere, they are casualties of unraveling nuclear families and depleted small towns.
Their shared solitude is not by choice but by circumstance. And in their sudden, non sequitur love affair, they cling to each other with the urgency of people who have seen the possibility of salvation and escape from their misery in another human being. The foundation of their relationship is built on longing: The job where they meet demands they work apart. But they stare out into the distance, looking for each other. Jack looks toward Ennis' campfire in the night, and Ennis watches Jack's horse slowly cross a distant mountain face like a tick on a dog's coat.
When the job is done, Ennis and Jack go their separate ways. Ennis returns to his betrothed and a desperate existence of dead-end jobs and children to support. Jack fares better, scoring a ballsy, rich rodeo queen (a memorable turn from The Princess Diaries' Anne Hathaway) who likes to run things in bed. The stakes are set for the kind of repressed dreams and disappointment that make up more of our lives than the ecstatic embraces, a fact few films acknowledge. In conventional love stories, the world itself is candlelit with the possibility and magic of romance. Brokeback Mountain wears no such blinders and fails to honor the manufactured formula that demands romantic union is all the sweeter when you wait for it. The love affair between Ennis and Jack is ill-fated from the get-go. Ennis and Jack manage to sneak away every so often for fishing trips where no lines are ever baited and where Jack dreams of the impossible: a way for them to live together.
Proulx's gay cowboys aren't an entirely out-of-left-field notion. American cinema is marked with Westerns where the most significant, tender relationships unfold not between husbands and wives but between two lonesome cowboys whose job description seems to entail solitude and an inability to live within the confines of normal domestic stability. John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy built upon that tradition with its two wounded, misfit nobodies roaming the mean streets of Times Square like a couple of broken ranch-hands.
Brokeback Mountain speaks to a profound part of human existence in its story about loneliness and longing. At its core, the heartbreaking film is a necessary re-evaluation of the myths of masculine stoicism and emotional remove we hold dear in the Western, but also in life.
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