By Scott Mendelson
Based on E. Annie Proulx’s short story, Brokeback Mountain has been allotted plenty of industry attention due to the obvious fact that it is one of the first big-studio homosexual romantic dramas. Yes, in this film, you do see Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal engaging in sexual activities, kissing, hugging, etc. Now that that’s out of the way, one must view this film not on its noted status as the first such film, but its quality if it were merely the 50th such film. And, in fact, Brokeback Mountain does feel like the 50th such film, as it’s not really about being gay at all. Like all of Ang Lee’s previous movies, it is about regret, missed opportunities, and the crippling nature of social expectations and very real responsibilities. And, by that standard, it’s quite compelling.
Ennis (Ledger) and Jack (Gyllenhaal) are young cowboys in 1963 Middle America. They meet and spend a summer working as sheepherders in a place called Brokeback Mountain. They eventually engage in a torrid romance that ends as August arrives. Four years later, they meet up again, as they will for the next sixteen years, every few months, for a brief respite from their own very different lives. While Ledger and Gyllenhaal share top billing, this is clearly Ennis’s story, as we see far more of his life then Jack’s. Aside from romantic yearnings for Ennis, Jack’s life seems content. He is seemingly happily married to Lureen Newsome (Anne Hathaway), the daughter of a wealthy salesman, and he has most of the comforts of a financially stable household.
Ennis, however, is the model of lower-class tragedy. As the summer of 1963 ends, he immediately marries Alma (an Oscar-worthy Michelle Williams) and, within four years, he has two children, a one-sided marriage, and bills that keep him and his wife working non-stop in menial, psychically demanding jobs to support their bare minimum lifestyle. For Ennis, Jack is an escape from this impoverished and joyless life. Alma has no such outlet for her burdens, and her pain becomes the most devastating aspect of the film. She quickly discovers the nature of Ennis and Jack’s relationship and heart-breakingly realizes that she has based her future with a man who can barely support her, does not love her, and eventually cannot be passionate with her.
For twenty years, Jack and Ennis meet for occasional ‘fishing trips’ and for twenty years, even when seemingly able, they do not take their relationship beyond romantic getaways. Jack wishes this, while Ennis refuses, blaming social intolerance. But Ennis is really afraid of being truly destitute, of abandoning his children, and afraid of the possibility that he cannot open up emotionally to anyone at all. Alas, Jack and Ennis’s relationship is not a great love affair, but a fantasy, based on idealized memories of their first encounter. Jack and Ennis are wildly different people, and their lust would likely not have been enough to sustain their differences in a normal relationship. Of course, had they tried and failed early in life, they both could have moved on. The tragedy is that their yearning is both what sustains them and what renders them unable to rebound from their respective problems.
Like most of Ang Lee’s previous work, Brokeback Mountain is a good, emotionally potent film about lives unfulfilled due to fear and the excuses we make to stop ourselves from pursuing what we really want. Bruce Banner runs from Betty Ross’s nurturing love because he fears that his inner rage will hurt her. Master Li uses his potentially final breaths to confess his love for Yu Shu Lien, now that possible death has freed him from the social constrictions that have rendered him silent. And Ennis uses social intolerance and family responsibilities to disguise his fear of being incapable of baring his soul to another person. In the end they all lose, they all end up wasting their lives.
As the film winds down, Ennis must come to grips with the life he has made for himself as he undertakes a journey that will vaguely remind people of screenwriter Larry McMurtry’s masterpiece, Lonesome Dove (the mini-series adaptation of which is perhaps the finest western ever made). But in the end, there is a glimmer of hope, and a potential first step. Perhaps all of these lives we see connected through Brokeback Mountain will not be in vain.