Movie Review: “ Brokeback Mountain”

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It isn’t without its fair share of cringe-worthy clichés. Then again, every love story has them.

Partway through Ang Lee’s adaptation of the wonderful Annie Proulx story, “ Brokeback Mountain,” the Heath Ledger character, Ennis Del Mar, argues with the Jake Gyllenhaal character, Jack Twist, over the nature of their blossoming relationship.

“If you can’t fix it, you’ve got to stand it,” he says, regarding the uncompromising world in which they live.

“…for how long?” asks Jack, nearly pleading for relief from their shared frustration.

“We ride it for as long as we can,” says Ennis. “There’s no reins on this one.”

When you’re reading the story, a line like that is just magic. But actually hearing a real, honest-to-goodness cowboy character say those lines – and the performance is hands-down Oscar material – you see just how precious those lines really are.

That bit of quibble aside, “ Brokeback Mountain” is more than just a gay cowboy love story. It is the most accurate film portrayal of men in love as we’ve ever seen.

It is many different movies, in fact, all at the same time.

It’s about coming out. To the closeted and/or heterosexually married among us, this is perhaps a far more relevant story than Proulx – along with screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana – ever realized.

One of the ironies of being unabashedly “out” and having passed that stage of “coming out” is that those early feelings of identification, that sense that I’m-not-of-the-majority, that burden of having to tell everybody “who I am,” all of that is so transient. It passes and, because we’re in no position to stand back and analyze our feelings while we deal with that anguish, it’s easy to forget just how emotionally challenging coming out can be. Here is a vivid reminder.

It should come as no surprise, then, to know that the three writers – Proulx, McMurtry, Ossana – are all straight. The mainstreaming of gay literature and film has grown exponentially over the past thirty years and, as with our politics, it has many times used identity as its base, its starting point rather than rely on the simple (and yet complex) feelings we all share universally during those moments when we feel as though we’ve just invented love, the tingling, the out-of-body, am-I-really-feeling-this experience, the ways we all recognize love when it arrives, not in the identification of how gay people love in relation to the straights.

If you read the short story before you see the movie – it is currently the bestselling title right now at OutLoud! – prepare for a multitude of layers to unfold in places where the story only hinted. (The film is such a faithful adaptation of the story, there are scenes with lines you will place before they’re even spoken). Most beautifully illuminated are those of the two female costars: Michelle Williams, who plays Del Mar’s wife, Alma; and Anne Hathaway, who is Twist’s wife, Lureen.

Best recognized by her role on television’s “ Dawson’s Creek,” Williams transforms herself into the broken and confused wife of Ledger’s Ennis so vividly you’ll want to pull her head from between her shoulders throughout the middle part of the film.

Hathaway’s performance as Lureen, while equally moving, is more subtle, and readers of the story will appreciate this more. She’s the one who most visibly changes physically as the film progresses (the movie takes place over a twenty year span, ending in 1983). Eventually discovering, though never voicing her suspicion, that her marriage to Gyllenhaal’s Jack is not picture perfect, she morphs from an easygoing, flirtatious rodeo queen in the 1960s into an overdriven workaholic in the 1970s and, finally, ends up a “cold as snow” wife, complete with too much makeup, too big hair, and – far too late – too much time to think about her marriage.

Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of Jack Twist has received less glory from filmgoers than Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar – he was notably absent from any of the Golden Globe award categories when the nomination list was released recently – and that may be because his character, of the two, is more comfortable with his sexuality; by comparison, Ennis’s inner conflict is highlighted. Listen closely when Jack daydreams aloud to Ennis midway through the film and you’ll understand better, later, the raw emotion in the climactic scene between the two men.

“ Brokeback Mountain,” in the end, belongs to Ledger and his character, Ennis Del Mar. Watch as he visibly forces nearly every word from his lips when he speaks, as though any set of words he chooses, every use of the language will inevitably release all of his secrets. Across the entire twenty year span of the story it does not change a bit. This isn’t a closeted homosexual in the 1960s. This is American-style manhood – gay or straight.

Who among us, as we watch this movie, can’t picture an uncle, our father or grandfather, an old schoolmate, or that guy where we took the car when it broke down, when Ennis talks? So much more than just a love story, this movie unearths the complicated ways that many undereducated, small-town men fall in love to this day. How ironic it is that, in this respect, many among the straight male population who will avoid this movie would have related most with its protagonist.

“ Brokeback Mountain” is a movie about broken families. As the years accumulate, we see not only the development of Ennis’s relationship with Jack but also with his wife, Alma, and most poignantly, with his daughters. That we’re offered a full representation of these relationships completely – entirely – humanizes Ennis, even when he seems to be at his most emotionally detached.

The last scene, with its subtlety, and its gentle release as the music rises and you breathe that heavy breath that you – I guarantee you – will breathe, that last scene manages to pull you into Ennis’s present day (and even offers a glimpse into the future) so effectively that you’ll feel you’d lived the last 20 years right alongside him.

This is not a movie about identity. The director Lee dares us to slap the label “gay men” on his protagonists by placing their relationship squarely in the center of America’s most stereotypically heterosexual environment possible. It’s almost as though the story of this relationship necessitated this setting to prove to us how much a challenge love is, whether you’re two men, two women, or – dare I even say it – one man and one woman.