The gay cowpokes from Ang Lee’s drawn-out adaptation of Annie Proulx’s short story Brokeback Mountain hunger for the mountain retreat where they first made love in much the same way Scarlett O’Hara longs for Tara in Gone with the Wind. Both are places of utopian solace and freedom—one a shield from the Civil War, the other a closet refuge from a pre-Stonewall environment of shaming gay oppression. The film begins with Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) cruising each other like two horned-up animals discharging pheromones into the air. Lee’s actors plant the seeds of their characters’ bourgeoning, decades-long relationship around a sexy series of stolen glances, a premeditated peek through a car’s sideview mirror, and an awkward handshake. Later in the film, when a similar ritual plays out between Jack and his future wife Lureen (Anne Hathaway) at a cowboy bar, the effect isn’t quite the same. One scene evokes the rapture of history being born, the other resignation. For Jack, it’s obvious he’d rather be back at Brokeback Mountain with his buddy Ennis.
Though Brokeback Mountain’s progressivism isn’t daring when compared to something like Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Whity, the film is very much a milestone for a mainstream Hollywood production. Lee and co-screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana haven’t corrected the western so much as they have shown us its backside. In essence, what was subversively hinted at in Howard Hawks’s Red River and Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar has been brought to the fore, with an intense preoccupation for the heartbreaking tumult that registers on the faces of its lonesome doves. No longer are Montgomery Clift and John Ireland admiring each other’s guns—they’re reaching for and grabbing them. But Proulx’s story is a model of economy the movie unnecessarily stretches out, pumped by what J. Hoberman rightfully recognized as “lyrical Marlboro-man imagery.” If the film succeeds at all it’s not because of Lee’s suffocatingly polite direction but for its expressive performances and intrinsic sadness of Ennis and Jack’s ritual of hiding.
Though Ennis and Jack’s love may not be replaceable, Lee’s camera looks to the Brokeback Mountain range no differently than it might any other hilly terrain. The undistinguished titular locale is supposed to be an effigy to Ennis and Jack’s past and thwarted future but Lee’s banal aesthetic dulls what is vibrant and uniquely evocative in the hearts of its characters. Luckily the actors are only too happy to pick up the slack. The story scrupulously casts Jack as a nagging woman to Ennis’s alpha male, but Gyllenhaal and Ledger ensure the gender roles they’re forced to act out aren’t phony. Gyllenhaal is solid throughout, and though Ledger at first appears to communicate his character’s frustrations almost entirely through the gruffy inflection of his voice, the final scenes in the film allow him to more unequivocally and credibly express Ennis’s grief. But Michelle Williams, as Ennis’s wife Alma, may be the true standout here, fascinatingly spiking her unspoken resentment for her sham of a marriage with a hint of compassion for Ennis’s secret suffering.
Brokeback Mountain runs at least 30 minutes too long, which wouldn’t be so bad if Lee had dedicated himself to the project as obsessively as his actors, but the story is at least tuned into the way social mores effect personal behavior. Over and over again Ennis and Jack return to Brokeback Mountain, trying to transcend the fling-like nature of their relationship. Jack once suggested they could build a life together but Ennis rejected the idea, recalling how his father once showed him the corpse of an ostensibly gay cowboy dragged by his penis until it was torn from his body. Fear eats the soul in the film, but via a series of subtle glimpses into the home of Jack’s parents, the filmmakers make it easy to imagine a happier life for Ennis and Jack under a different set of circumstances. Just as Ennis is haunted, so is the story by the crippling specter of the proverbial “what if.” In this case: What if Ennis’s parents had lived and an understanding mother—like Jake’s—gave him the guts to one day say “yes” to impossible love? Even in its bleakest hour, the film is filled with an aching sense of possibility—a feeling of regret Ledger works hard to make palatable.
Loyal as this film may be to its source (the only significant differences I noticed were a string of home-on-the-range puns like “there are no reins on this one” the script applies to the state of Ennis and Jack’s relationship), it doesn’t quite share its grit. Take, for example, the story’s two significant sex scenes. Lee gets the first one right: Jack grabs Ennis’s erect cock, a gesture Ennis reciprocates by effortlessly penetrating Jack with the help of a little spit. Proulx describes this instinctual act as “nothing he’d done before but no instruction manual needed,” and there’s a matter-of-fact vitality to this moment in both the book and the film. But a future sex scene between Jack and Ennis in a Texas motel illustrates a self-effacing Lee’s desire to please the middlebrow. Proulx describes a room that stinks of “semen and smoke and sweat and whiskey, of old carpet and sour hay, saddle leather, shit and cheap soap,” but if it were possible to scratch and sniff Lee’s vision of Ennis and Jack locked in each other’s arms, it’d probably smell of incense, which is—come to think of it—what an Oscar stage might smell like. So much for down and dirty.