Brokeback Mountain (2005, Ang Lee)
Sure, the curse of the prestige picture and the social relevancy parlor trick and all that; nobody will ever have any more trouble guessing that Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain is a product of the Bush era than they will knowing that Victim dates from early ’60s Britain, which makes neither film less effective. The strange logic that this western was only so acclaimed because of its then-politically volatile subject matter (the very fact of homosexuality), that it’s “just another romantic movie” if you remove its themes of sexual identity and concealment thereof falls apart when you actually see it and realize it’s a stunning and deceptively simple tragic odyssey of American life, burned in expansive landscapes, hiding places and unspoken truths. You then regret having waited so long. It is indeed “just a romance,” and one of the most persuasive and emotional ones ever put on the screen in the U.S.
As frequently appealing as his sprightly and erotically charged action films are, Ang Lee has always been at his best as a chronicler of repression; Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm might have tried to cancel one another out, but both quietly suggest the sober, elegant minimalism of this film. Lee never once sees his cowboys’ sexuality as a problem he has to conquer but simply the great fact of their conflicted existences; everything that his camera captures seems as natural and organic as though it were really happening, except with beautiful compositions and intimately designed setups. He might have been criticized for ramping up Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance until it bursts out into sentimentality, but that openness of feeling is only a catharsis for two hours of unbroken tension, and his Jack Twist never says anything that a frustrated lover in real life would not say, and then probably regret.
Nor does Lee make the mistake of treating these two as any other star-crossed (oh, what a loathsome term) lovers. The forbidden nature of Jack and Ennis’ love is a given to them, something they instinctively assume by default. And instincts are kicking in even when Ennis dryly announces that he’s “not a queer” the morning after the two of them first have sex in an alcohol-hazed tent. No, it isn’t really different from a lot of other stories in the bare facts of its structure and climax, but the circumstances and time period (the ’60s through the early ’80s) do indeed change everything — and it’s here that Lee might be seen as quietly challenging some part of his audience to swear to themselves they are fine with this treatment, but to the average viewer whose hackles are not raised it will pass uneventfully. That’s Lee’s wink.
Lee’s sparse, broad vistas and careful choreography of actors is assisted dramatically by quite possibly the most beautifully written screenplay in a major film of our time, certainly in the western genre, by Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry, sparked by an Annie Proulx short story she claims to regret writing, and there’s even some measure of wit to its purportedly staid atmospherics. The script correctly uses dialogue only sparingly — and then seldom, if ever, to vocalize what the characters are visibly thinking. That’s a lost art in great film writing and a strong boost to pure cinematic storytelling, and it contributes a lot to the sense of accuracy in how Ennis and Jack see themselves. Take the early scene in which Jack’s drunken attempt to seduce Ennis is first rebuffed and then unexpectedly one-upped, almost completely without any spoken communication; or those in which the men confront the outside-imposed societal standards of their daily life (the film implies they’re both bisexual, but that makes no difference in a world of shades of black and white only); or finally, the many stilted goodbyes and rejections, with the only meaningful confirmation of something deeper visible in narrowed eyes welling up.
Lee is not new to the western, having previously made a little-remembered, star-studded action film called Ride with the Devil set in the Civil War. But cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto came to this project from the gritty, unforgiving city nightmares of Amores Perros, 8 Mile, 25th Hour and 21 Grams, but he adapts to these jaw-dropping bright days and wide-open spaces like John Ford in Monument Valley, and takes on the Lee paradigm of making utter chaos something to quietly observe, silent emotions into breakneck actions setpieces. The photography is spectacular whether capturing a man crying in a shed, one seeking sex in a bar, or two people herding sheep on an imposing hill. All that we see seems almost crushed under the tragically lovelorn haze of lives misspent, happiness denied, again with all too much unsaid.
Given all this, we can see Brokeback Mountain as the kind of project a lot of directors dream about, one in which everything simply coalesces beautifully. The first-rate casting is a major coup — every one of the performances is restrained, deeply felt, brilliant — and thank heavens that half-wit Mark Wahlberg refused to do it because he thought making out with a man would be “weird.” Start with the female roles, though, filled by Michelle Williams (sublime as always) and Anne Hathaway (it’s easy to forget how impressively complex she can be), the former suffering the weightier disappointment as Ennis’ wife Alma — a brooding, once loving spouse who cannot understand — the latter as business-minded Lureen. After that seemingly loveless arrangement falls apart, Jack connects with a compassionate woman named Cassie (Linda Cardellini) who again proves only an obstacle in the way of true emotional fulfillment.
Inevitably, however, it’s Gyllenhaal and especially Ledger that we come away remembering. Their chemistry is restrained but believable, their occasionally evident passion simmering and, in its fashion, a true enough thing to make all else swirling in this two-decade slice of life feel toxic. Gyllenhaal’s eager-beaver, matter-of-fact sweetness recalls John Cazale in The Godfather, as does his tendency to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, subject of some consternation from those who felt the film was conservative enough to depict homosexuality as a “problem” that leads to dread and demise back in 2005. But of course, the snapshots of Jack’s death are only Ennis’ speculation of what happened, and at any rate it’s the system that the film attacks, not the men who suffer at its hands.
There is a slight imbalance between Ennis and Jack because Ledger’s performance is so powerful — it’s vastly superior to the Lawrence Welk sideshow clown role for which he’d later win a posthumous Oscar, and its sustained, quiet magnificence is enough to newly amplify the tragedy of the actor’s death for a new viewer. First there is his pure masculinity, an old-world inscrutable sense of blind duty and resistance to emotional expression — until the heartbreaking finale at Jack’s parents’ house — that add to the open sensuality of the performance, the searing ache of which is boxed in and carefully released at specific intervals. It’s both deeply believable and dramatically dynamic — there are fireworks in every stonefaced expression Ledger gives. The sense of unbearable loss that permeates the entire film is a story all told in his face, his nails-tough but wounded voice.
The loss of Brokeback Mountain to Crash at the Oscars in 2006 is of no particular importance in understanding or appreciating the film, but it does point up how much it depicted a world and a hatred that still existed at the time; it’s difficult to imagine any reason for its loss besides the political rejection of a homosexual love story. Crash won against four terrific movies, and this was the one that (despite being a period piece) most easily captured the tension and fear in Bush-era America. It’s my hope that this film will one day seem as much a quaint antique as now does Victim, but I know for sure that it will still be a powerful chronicle of not forbidden emotions playing havoc with lives but cold rationality destroying the inner life and happiness to which we’re all entitled.