Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, one of the most talked about movies of the year, fortunately also happens to be one of its best. Like Annie Proulx’s short story by the same title, the movie resists the temptation to plead or lecture, opting instead to tell a love story the way its characters live it.
This is no small feat. The vast majority of film representations of gay characters tend to suffer from what director Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven) once called the “Sidney Poitier Syndrome,” meaning that gays are either perfect individuals who suffer from society’s persecution, or else its weak, yet noble victims who are saved by the straight man. What Brokeback Mountain achieves is nothing short of miraculous: showing us gay characters as complex human beings.
Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhall) and Ennis del Mar (Heath Ledger) are cowboys who meet in the summer of 1963 when they take up jobs as herder and camp tender in rural Wyoming. The man who hires them, Aguirre (Randy Quaid) wants the herder to sleep right where the sheep pasture, in violation of rules set up by Forest Service, which has designated camp sites. Jack and Ennis pack up the mules and leave for Brokeback Mountain, where they follow Aguire’s rules.
Within a few days of their arrival, though, Jack gets tired of commuting four hours to camp for his meals. Ennis offers to replace him for a while, and they take to staying up late at night, drinking whiskey and telling stories. The two cowboys have much in common: They were both raised on small, poor ranches, they both dream of having a small spread someday, they both enjoy horses and dogs and the country life. But while Jack is eager to try new things, confident in his choices, and quick to lose his temper, Ennis is more measured, more careful of the rules, the sort of man who thinks that “if you can’t fix it, you’ve got to stand it.”
One night, as the temperature drops, they share a tent. Unexpectedly, and yet inevitably, they become lovers. Despite their feelings for one another, though, the two men are quick to say that they’re “not no queer,” that theirs is a “one-shot thing” and “nobody’s business but ours.” When the summer is over, they return to their former lives, get married and have children. Four years later, they see each other again and quickly realize that theirs wasn’t a “one-shot thing.”
Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain is one of those rarest of treats–a film adaptation that manages to successfully translate literary narrative into visual language. When, after a night of bad weather, the sheep get mixed in with another herd, Proulx writes:
Even when the numbers were right Ennis knew the sheep were mixed. In a disquieting way everything seemed mixed.
And the first time that Ennis and Jack see each other after their four years apart, Proulx describes their reunion thus:
They seized each other by the shoulders, hugged mightily, squeezing the breath out of each other, saying son of a bitch, son of a bitch; then, and as easily as the right key turns the lock tumblers, their mouths came together…
Lee’s talent lies in being able to make sentences such as these resonate visually on screen. In this endeavor, he is aided by his two leading actors, who deliver outstanding performances. Ledger, in particular, makes you feel you’re watching Ennis del Mar, rather than an actor playing him. Michelle Williams holds her own as Ennis’s distraught wife. I didn’t, however, care much for Anne Hathaway as Lureen (Jack’s wife), perhaps because the part of the story involving her didn’t feel as dramatic (Lureen made only a brief appearance in the Proulx piece, in fact.) But even that misstep doesn’t detract from what is an otherwise wonderful film adaptation.
Beside his obvious talent as director, Lee brings immense sensitivity to this love story. “Brokeback Mountain” is one of the finest movies I’ve seen this year–engaging, honest, and, above all, very moving.