I suppose everyone knows by now that this film tells of two young cowboy-hatted blokes, Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal), who fall in love atop Wyoming’s Brokeback Mountain one summer in 1963 while left alone to herd sheep; and that it’s a tale of doomed love. I’d expected it to yank sharply on the heartstrings but among its surprises is that it’s actually quite a quiet, restrained piece.
After that summer, years pass in which Jack and Ennis are obliged to accumulate wives and kids. But they reunite, rekindling their romance and establishing a tradition of an annual reunion up on Brokeback. Peripherally, we see Ennis’ daughters grow into young women. We watch as the high-spirited, glowing rodeo cowgirl (Anne Hathaway) whom Jack marries becomes a staid businesswoman, sedately accepting a passionless marriage.
Perhaps the most salient aspect of Ennis’ character, even more than his sexual preference, is his inability ever to forsake his shell. He’s distant, non-verbal, can’t commit; in other words, every inch a typical guy. The most moving scene for me was the final one, in which Ennis, now leading a solitary existence in a trailer, is visited by his sweet daughter, now 19. She tells him that she’s to be married. He asks her a question about her fiancé, whom he has never met. It’s a simple one but it gets to the heart of the matter: does he love you? Yes, comes the answer; and Ledger makes us feel by the pursing of his lips that, were he verbal, Ennis might tell her that that’s good; that to be loved is all he could possibly want for her.
Ennis and Jack throw off all stereotypes of gay men; there’s nothing remotely effeminate or prissy about them. They have wives and kids, showing that one's sexuality isn’t really a matter of what one does so much as it is of what one prefers. Cowboys of course are icons of American manhood; these many, many years into the gay liberation movement, it shouldn’t be regarded as subversive to show that such men can be gay. However, the film’s critique remains pertinent of a culture which, though it famously enshrines the pursuit of happiness, can be profoundly conformist. To be different -- to break the culture's rules for masculinity -- is still too often to court hatred and even violence. (Graphic violence in the film is limited to but the briefest of flashes.)
A word should be said about Gyllenhaal’s Jack, with his shy, lopsided grin and kind eyes. And that this film is best seen on a big screen to experience the full impact of an American beauty lovingly captured by director Ang Lee, of green mountainsides which the flock of sheep stream down like a mighty river. Based on a short story by Annie Proulx originally published in the New Yorker. Essential viewing.
- Jan 30, 2006