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With Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee manages a tricky feat: he genuinely shocks. I'm not talking about the homoeroticization of the Western; anyone who's seen The Iron Horse knows that in that sense, there's very little going on here that can be thought to be very new. But Lee has somehow managed to completely defy convention by making a film that takes love seriously, in a way that allows for some ecstasy and ample tragedy, and yet zero cynicism. His subtle, almost painterly telling of the story of a lifelong love between two men who can never really be together drops at the very end of a year obsessed with Movies That Mean Something, and it manages to raise the stakes. It's not particularly politically provocative, and it's flawed for sure, but in its subtle elevation of a single romance to the stuff of literal life and death, Brokeback Mountain makes every bleeding heart film (from the justly-commended Good, to the Constantly over-praised bad) in a year chock full of them look comparatively burlesque. It stands as a stunning reminder of how wonderful/awful a real coronary hemorrhage actually feels – and, of how at the end of the day, there really isn't anything more important to most of us than finding someone whose very presence gives us some kind of tangible proof that we're alive.
The ever-watchful Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid) hires two strapping young men, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), to spend the summer on Wyoming's majestic Brokeback Mountain looking after his sheep. All alone together in the middle of nowhere, the two men have little to do to pass the time but sit around a fire, joking and bitching and getting to know one another, passing back and forth a flask of whiskey all the while. Both are young, sheltered, and clearly poor; this time on this mountain is probably the first burst of grown-up freedom either man has ever known, and there's a sense that both know this is as good as it's ever going to get. Ennis is a quiet lug of a ranch hand, so inward-directed that his personality seems to entropy a bit more with every passing frame. Jack is an outgoing rodeo cowboy with an almost stunning physical self-confidence. Whereas Ennis finds his comfort zone somewhere in between his down-turned hat brim and his whiskey-filled coffee cup, Jack is a born extrovert, a showman. Just the way he lounges by the campfire – legs stretched out to the side, the whole of his weight balanced on one arm, his blue-pearl eyes fixed straight ahead – is proof that this is a man who likes to be looked at.
After a few drunken nights around the campfire, the two begin to fumble their way into one another's personal space. Soon Ennis give up his coffee mug to drink straight from Jack's bottle, and soon after that, he gets up the guts to open up.
"I don't know what the Pentecost is," Jack slurs one night around the fire. "But I figure, the world ends, and fellas like you and me march off to hell."
"Speak for yourself," Ennis answers, without missing a beat. "You may be a sinner, but I ain't yet had the opportunity."
Talk about passive-aggressive. Jack gives Ennis the opportunity that very night, when too much whiskey and too much wind coax the men into the same pup tent. Jack is the instigator, but he's also an eager bottom. Ennis first meets the advance with clenched fists, but even that macho impulse feels like foreplay in this context – it allows Jack and Ennis a moment, that they wouldn't have otherwise had, to look in one another's eyes. The two men are in the process of choreographing a dance that they'll rehearse for twenty years. In this moment, Jack makes a desperate emotional commitment to Ennis, one he'll continue to push no matter how many shields Ennis instinctually throws up ... or how many indiscretions Jack carries through on the side. Ennis speaks volumes through his physicality, and very little in literal voice, but in this shot, without saying a word, he lets it be known that he'll always, at the very least, come to play. It's short, and dimly lit, and it doesn't last very long, but this single shot is so fraught with tension, it's almost too much to take.
That first sex scene is probably the sole site of prurient interest in Lee's film. It's not in any way graphically rendered, but there's a viscerality to it that feels scarily real. It's a brief encounter, devoid of romance; on its surface, it doesn't look like the kind of sex that leads anywhere good. Ennis gets into the spirit soon enough, but it's impossible to put a finger on what's going on in his head. Is he legitimately attracted to Jack? Or is he punishing him by giving him what he wants? Is this, in Ennis' mind, rape? The bulk of the scene is shot with Jack's face in the foreground, and Ennis', a scrunched-up blur. It's here that Gyllenhaal really begins to impress. As his expression flips between ecstasy and pain at the steady clip of Ennis' thrusts, Gyllenhaal manages to telegraph several streams of emotion at once, leaving us to select the dominant strain. But in what'll become Brokeback Mountain's most frustrating motif, Lee cuts away before we've seen enough to make any sort of value judgment on either player; the fact that he chooses to cut to an exterior shot of the pup tent, before we see the sex come to its logical conclusion, just seems like an unnecessary joke. If this tent's a rocking ... etc etc.
But Jack and Ennis' second coupling fills in all the blanks that Lee (in hindsight, wisely) short circuits with the first. The men have already dispensed with their excuses – "I'm no queer," Ennis reminds Jack, and Jack responds in kind, though somewhat less convincingly – so when Ennis moves into the tent the second time, to find Jack lying there, undressed and ready, it's clear that a mutual decision is being made. This time, Lee allows his actors the comforting amber light of a phantom campfire, and he slows the proceedings down to a slug's pace. It's heavy-handed in contrast to the first sex scene, but almost necessarily so. It's a second chance, a correction: all alone on Brokeback Mountain, Ennis and Jack are allowed to open up space and time and create a pocket in which the kind of furtive fucks they'd enjoy as secret lovers down below, marked by their breathless brevity and panicked realism, can be teased apart to allow for some kind of real pleasure, or even spiritual exultation. It's with this scene that Lee announces that, above all else, he's making a classic, till-death-do-us-part romance.
Which is not to say that this is not a film about gayness. Ennis and Jack continue to meet several times a year, but each meeting is fraught with spoken and unspoken angst over the life stuff that conspires to keep them apart. It's true that neither Ennis nor Jack hesitates to marry the first pretty, more-than-willing girl that comes along; Lee also kindly spares us from having to confront the dramatic black hole of watching either man fail to perform heterosexually. But Jack and Ennis manage their general taste for men extremely differently, and this is as much the subject of Lee's film as their specific desire for one another. Jack is, very clearly, invested in being gay to a point where Ennis is just not. This is where Lee's casting team really deserves a gold star, because whilst between Ledger and Gyllenhaal there could be no discerning the more desirable heterosexual, Gyllenhaal is, without a doubt, the gay ingenue of the pair. Most critics seem to have found inspiration in Ledger's performance, and that of Michelle Williams (his real-life partner) as his embattled and embittered wife. But it's Gyllenhaal's work in this film that really does it for me. His Jack comes from the inherently flamboyant world of the rodeo - a Texan-centered cowboy culture of ruffled blouse bling for both boys AND girls, a world of style completely divorced from the kind of rural professionalism that Ennis could commit his body to in sleep. In every choice that he makes, Jack barely constrains the fact that he needs to sleep with men, and there's no getting around it.
Ennis, on the other hand, simply needs Jack. His desire begins and ends with his twice-a-year dalliances with his "friend" on Brokeback Mountain. He can condone, even recommend, his lover's relationship with his wife (played by Anne Hathaway in a breakout sort of fashion). The moment he comes to understand that there have been other men in Jack's life, however, Ennis makes sure there'll be hell to pay. At the same time, the idea that he and Jack could actually make a life together – an idea which Jack has carried over into fantastic blueprints – doesn't occur to Ennis as a viable option until it's far too late.
The intangible, the invisible, the impossible, the unsaid – Lee pulls it off in spades. What he doesn't do so well, is convincingly manage time. We'd hardly know that Jack and Ennis have spanned as many years together, if it weren't for the changing trends in tents. Sure, Jack adopts a mustache, a bit of a hunch, but at each character's supposed oldest, neither Jake nor Heath is at all convincing at playacting anything over 26. This is Brokeback's ultimate failure; you never disbelieve Jack and Ennis' relationship, but it's terribly difficult to grasp the scope the film is trying to carve out in time. Lee's refusal to mandate markers of temporal change banishes his story to a fantasy land outside of any placeable era, and thus, outside of any real urgency.
The ultimate image of the film is its least life-like, its most designed. Ennis has just proven his manhood in front of his family, but no one is satisfied. And he stands, thumbs in belt hooks, shot from below against a background of fireworks against a black summer sky. Far, far off in the lower lefthand portion of the screen, Williams' Alma cradles their child, unable to mask the first blush of skepticism as it creeps across her face. "If you can't fix it," Ennis tells Jack much later, "You've got to stand it." He's just reiterating what he's spent years practicing. Brokeback Mountain finds its genius in the juxtaposition of real emotions with a kind of dreamlike denial of the passing of days. But when the bubble of Jack and Ennis' love is eventually punctured, the weight of the comedown feels inextricably time-bound. The ache of the film creeps up on you, and like the players in its romance, you'll only feel its true impact when all hope is beyond lost.