Heartsick on the range
Director Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (written by Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry, from the short story by Annie Proulx) is being both heralded and dismissed—depending on the speaker’s perspective—as “the gay cowboy movie.” Strictly speaking, though, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) first meet in 1963 when they’re hired to tend sheep for a rancher (Randy Quaid) in the high lonesomeness of Montana. But then, calling it “the gay shepherd movie” wouldn’t have quite the same connotation. The idea of “gay cowboys” plays against a stereotype, as in 1975’s Shampoo, in which Warren Beatty was the “straight hairdresser,” cutting a swath through the women of Beverly Hills whose husbands and fathers all assumed he was safely homosexual.
The solitude up on Brokeback Mountain leads Jack and Ennis into friendship, then intimacy—and then, one night, a round of rough sex that grows more tender and playful as the weeks pass. When the summer ends, the two go their separate ways with a laconic “See ya around.” Ennis goes home to marry his sweetheart, Alma (Michelle Williams), while Jack returns to the rodeo circuit, where he’s a not-very-successful bronc-and-bull rider. In time, Jack meets and marries rodeo queen Lureen Newsome (Anne Hathaway), but he and Ennis can’t dismiss what happened between them on Brokeback Mountain. They continue to meet once or twice a year, ostensibly for “fishing trips,” until death does them part.
On the surface, Brokeback Mountain wears boldly what some people over the years have seen as a subtext of more conventional Westerns—think of those sly winks your friends in college would exchange when they talked about the Lone Ranger and Tonto, or while listening to old records of Gene Autry singing “Back in the Saddle Again.”
Under the surface, however, the movie gives viewers room to read whatever they want into Ennis and Jack’s story. You can see it as a simple gay-date movie, where the two stars age hardly a day in 20 years and, like hetero couples in more standard romantic movies (Back Street, To Each His Own, Imitation of Life, etc.), remain as handsome at the end as they were at the beginning.
Alternately (and preferably, I think), you can read it as a beautiful, sensitive love story about two men who must deny their deepest selves to get by in a world that won’t accept them as they are. Gyllenhaal’s forlorn, lonely Jack and Ledger’s tense, secretive Ennis, to whom words come only with a share of agony, are strangers in a strange land even as they try hard to blend in. In this light, women are viewed (as they are in many Westerns) as agents of civilization—except that here, “civilization” is oppressive and confining, not a betterment.
The film even can be read as the story of two men who refuse to grow up and settle down, clinging to an impossible adolescent crush until their “real” lives—wives, children, jobs and family—have been allowed to wither from neglect, leaving them alone and miserable. Even their rancher boss (“You guys sure found a way to make the time pass up there”) can read as either a plain homophobe or just a boss who bridles at his employees cuddling in a pup tent while wolves stalk the sheep. And Hathaway and Williams make Lureen and Alma seem as victimized as their husbands. Hathaway brings such depth to Lureen that she hardly seems the same actress who appeared in The Princess Diaries and Ella Enchanted. Williams’ Alma, baffled and wounded, is perhaps the most interesting character in the whole film. These women have been cheated, too—though one makes a rueful accommodation while the other finds apparent happiness in a second marriage.
Whichever way an audience chooses to read Brokeback Mountain, the final effect is one of almost insupportable sadness, of lives wasted. Director Lee, whose movies range widely through history and around the world, gives this one the heartsick, soulful ring of truth.