Many wondered how Annie Proulxís spare but
elegant prose would translate to film, and Ang Lee has lived up to expectations
so well that even the quickest shots in the movie made the audience gasp. Just
two cans of bubbling baked beans over the campfire and you feel like you're there.
The emotionally barren landscape contrasts so vividly with its physical beauty that
the sex scenes seem a natural extension of the filmís meticulously crafted shots
of the evergreen mountains or agonizingly beautiful streams and rivers. The viewer
wants the characters to feel more than the culture will allow.
As gorgeous or as disturbing as the filmís imagery is, you never want a scene to end.
Isolated and overworked, Jack and Heath Ledgerís Enis bemoan the lack of supplies and
the constant wind. You feel for them as they long for anything but beans. Even the
potatoes and milk are in short supply on Brokeback Mountain, and you can easily
understand the longing they feel, whether for work, for food, or for each other. When
Enis strips down to wash himself off, heís blurry in the background, but Jack is
in focus, wanting to look but knowing heíd better not. We wish the shot was in
focus; we want Jack to look. Conversely, when Jack washes his clothes in the river,
naked except for cowboy boots, just the touch of his stick against his long johns
seems so in tune with the riverís rushing flow that the nudity is as natural as the landscape.
Heath Ledger received a lot of attention for carrying the film, and itís well-deserved, but
I canít think of anyone better for the role of Jack than Gyllenhaal, whose oversized
eyes and soft, high voice convey a vulnerability that overshadows his fairly substantial
frame. You can tell why Anne Hathawayís Lureen wants to marry this poor kid, even against her rich
fatherís objections. Jack is someone who longs for success in the environment heís in, but
heís obviously in the wrong environment. He escapes to Mexico to cruise for guys. He returns
to Wyoming the next summer to see if Enis might possibly be around again.
I was worried that Hollywood would take this story about the impediments to same-sex
relationships and make it an Oprah Winfrey Show-style exercise about cheating on
women. Luckily, the female characters are portrayed sympathetically without them
seeming like castraters or victims. We definitely feel for Michelle Williams as Alma
when she struggles to work as a grocery clerk in the wake of Enisís unpredictable,
borderline abusive behaviour. When she says, ďIíd have more of your children if youíd
support them,Ē again the audience gasped.
In the context of this story about stunted same-sex love, itís reassuring to see that
Ledger and Gyllenhaal wrapped up in each otherís arms in a motel room doesnít look odd
or, worse, like two straight guys faking it. All the characters might be impossibly
good-looking, namely Enisís teenaged daughter, but by their dialogue and their (really fine)
acting, and the attention to detail in the sets and costumes, youíd expect to find these
people in these crummy houses and barren landscapes. The stunningly bare walls of
Jack's parents' house demonstrate their hard-nosed attitudes better than any words could.
One noticeable aspect to the film is itís use of silence. Thereís a minimal score,
and it seems in this that the director wants us to be aware of the constant wind,
the slow pace of life, the absence of modern technology. Enisís famous line, ĎIf you
canít fix it, youíve got to stand it,Ē is about as good as any Iíve heard in a film,
especially coupled with the few violent images with that tyre iron. Jack begins to get a
reputation as gay, and heís even rebuffed by rodeo clowns. The closed community of
hard-drinking ranchers and rodeos becomes a terrible trap, and his later marriage
to Lureen seems like such a safe haven you canít blame him for wanting it. Brokeback
Mountain is being billed as a love story, but itís really a tragedy, and if you leave
feeling emotionally robbed, thatís the point. The next morning youíll think of Enis
and the fireworks just above his head, or Gyllenhaal and that lamb, and realize youíre
richer now than when you showed up at the cinema.
Proulx says in the introduction to Close Range, the story collection Brokeback appears
in, that all the stories have an air of improbability to them. True enough, itís difficult
to imagine a twenty-year long affair between two people who have lost track of each other,
sometimes for four years at a time. Or that both of them were willing to continue this
over decades. Thereís a huge difference between fact and fiction, but Matthew Shepard was
killed a year after this story was published not thirty miles from Proulxís home in Wyoming.
Perhaps thatís another reason the story resonates with so many.
The BAFTAs and Oscars love big, sweeping, visually stunning epics, so it's no wonder this one was a favourite.
It's now 11 years since the release of the film and it still ranks
as the most finacially successful LGBT-themed film ever made, having
grossed $178 million at the box office since its release. The tragic death of Heath Ledger just 3
years after the film's release has only served to make this movie some special to cherish.
Matt Rauscher is the author of the novel The Unborn Spouse Situation.
Brokeback Mountain is 11 years old this week and is still available on DVD from Amazon.
OutUK interviews Jake Gyllenhaal