Brokeback Mountain (opening December 16 at Landmarks La Jolla Village and Hillcrest Cinemas) arrives in San Diego after having already gathered awards from the New York and Los Angeles Film Critics and nominations from the Golden Globes and Broadcast Film Critics. The film chronicles the long-term relationship of two modern day cowboys, played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal.
Brokeback Mountain has been generating buzz since its inception. It has been labeled the gay cowboy film, and gained attention when two hunky, hetero Hollywood starsHeath Ledger (A Knights Tale, The Brothers Grimm) and Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko, Jarhead)were cast in the lead roles. Adding to the anticipatory feeling was the fact that the director was Ang Lee, the Taiwanese filmmaker who set box office records with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and that one of the writers was acclaimed novelist Larry McMurtry.
The film opens in Wyoming in 1963. Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) are two cowboys looking for work. Theyre hired to tend sheep up in a rugged area known as Brokeback Mountain. Then, on a cold night and after some heavy drinking, the two share a tent and some rough and tumble sex. In the sober light of day they dismiss what happened. Ennis attempts to reaffirm his heterosexuality by saying You know Im not queer. To which Jack says, Me neither.
But they soon repeat their sexual encounter, only this time they show tenderness toward each other and have to admit that they do love each other. Being alone in the mountains and away from a society that would condemn what theyre doing, they begin to feel emboldened and more comfortable with each other and with their intimacy. When their job ends, however, they part ways. Ennis is about to be married and Jack figures hell do some rodeo work or head to his fathers ranch. They go their separate ways but a bond has been formed that will not easily be broken.
Years pass. Ennis gets married and has a couple of kids. Jack happens upon the daughter of a wealthy businessman, and ends up married and with a kid as well. Jack finally decides to contact Ennis and they both realize that their passion for each other is still strong. Jack seems ready to abandon everything for Ennis, but Ennis is not willing to take such a gamble. He feels pressured by society to conform to a normal, heterosexual life or at least maintain the appearance of one. So the two men end up meeting whenever they can, and telling the wives theyre going on are fishing trips. This arrangement falls short of what Jack longs for but its all that Ennis is willing to commit to. And as in all those Douglas Sirk melodramas of the 1950s, this one ends tragically.
Brokeback Mountain is very much like Sirks old Technicolor melodramas of the fifties. These filmssuch as All That Heaven Allows and Magnificent Obsessionwere often dismissed as womens pictures because the stories revolved around tragic love. Brokeback Mountain recalls Sirks films in the way it deals with forbidden, secret love and the way the lovers feel unable to succumb fully to their desires because of social pressure. Yet director Ang Lee is working in a completely different physical environment that Sirk. Lee doesnt emphasize such visual elements as stair railings and room dividers that turned the suburban homes of Sirks films into prisons for his characters. Lee and director of photography Gustavo Santaolalla are working outdoors amidst a stunning western landscape, the openness of which contrasts with the constraints of society. Lees film provides the same gloss as Sirks films but Sirk provided attractive surfaces to appease Hollywood and fool audiences into thinking he was just making standard melodramas. But if you looked more closely, you could find a scathing social commentary on petty, small-minded people and societys demand for conformity. Lee, however, doesnt seem to be making a scathing commentary. He acknowledges that society that has little tolerance for gays and will go to violent extremes to show its disapproval. Yet criticism of this is not embedded in his film and because of the film lacks that bite, it tends to wallow in its romantic melodrama. The film focuses on Ennis inability to commit fully to anything. Even if Ennis did not fear social repercussions, Im not sure he would have committed to Jack. Ennis seems unable to commit to Jack or his wife or his kids, and that leads to tragedy. Only at the end of the film, does Ennis show signs of changing and of emotionally opening up.
Brokeback Mountain is based on a short story by Annie Proulx. The film adaptation by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana works best in the opening and closing sections. The middle, however, feels like it has stretched the source material thin without fleshing out the details. The ending is definitely the films strongest point. Whereas most films dont know how to end, Brokeback Mountain knows precisely and elegantly how to wrap things up. Since I dont want to give away too much, let me just say that the ending draws on the short storys neat ending and employs a poetic visual image to sum up the emotions of the story. The problem with the middle of the film, though, is that it doesnt feel wholly lived in. The sets are well dressed, the campsite looks nicely lain out, but neither looks like the characters fully inhabit the space. When Jack goes south of the border to look for young boys, the Mexican town looks tidy and the male prostitute looks almost freshly scrubbed. Theres needs to be a little more grit to this scene because it is supposed to represent the depth to which Jack has sunk.
Then theres the issue of sex. Lee cant seem to decide if the relationship is driven primarily by sex or by love, or if theres a point at which the driving force changes. After Jack and Enniss first sexual encounter, the sex diminishes onscreen and were not sure if it also diminishes in their relationship. We feel as though their relationship has developed into one fueled more by emotional rather than sexual intimacy. Then Jack has an outburst explaining, You dont know how bad it gets and about having to go to Mexico to satisfy his sexual desires. Were as shocked by his outburst as Ennis because filmmaker Ang Lee seems unwilling to deal with those sexual passions as they change over the years. Its as if hes too timid to show real sexual intimacy. But in a brief flashbackwhen Jack seems to have fallen asleep on his feet and Ennis gently embraces himand in the final scenes, Lee does finally convey both the passion and the tenderness that sustained their relationship for decades.
In terms of acting, Ledger and Gyllenhaal are both good, highly appealing and sympathetic actors, but they also seem somewhat removed from their characters. Maybe thats because they are trying to play men who are putting up a faade through most of the film and are only briefly allowed to be themselves. But too often, Lee just poses them like models in a Marlboro cigarette ad (in fact, sometimes the film looks distractingly beautiful and vibrantly hued). In the film industry, there also seems to be a trend for straight actors to take on gay roles (Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote, Felicity Huffman in TransAmerica, Cillian Murphy in Breakfast on Pluto). In the case of Brokeback Mountain, everyone seems eager to pat the filmmakers and especially the actors on the back for their daring and bravery. But Brokeback Mountain, while bringing gay characters more into the mainstream, feels rather tame and conventionalmaybe too much like a standard 50s melodramas. Plus both Ledger and Gyllenhaal seem to have carefully plotted their other film roles so that they can both be simultaneously seen in films that reassert their heterosexuality for mainstream audiencesGyllenhaal with his soldiers role in Jarhead and Ledger playing the womanizing title character in Casanova. Brokeback Mountain has that politically correct sensibility which is likely to date it in the years to come. But for the moment its the kind of film that makes Hollywood feel good about itself and its willing to take on issues in what is proving to be a society thats still conservative in its views of sexual behavior.
Brokeback Mountain (rated R for language, sexual content and brief violence) has considerable craftsmanship on display but self-indulgent melodrama that drives the middle of the film may prevent some from becoming fully involved in its story.