Directed by: Ang Lee
Starring: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, Michelle Williams
As things shook out, 2005 became particularly noteworthy as a year in which most of the better films were either political in content, or dealt with gay or GLBT issues. Of course, given the responses from some quarters, you could say that there's no real difference between the two.
There's no question that Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain has, as we say, frightened the horses. My personal favorite response comes from Ted Baehr's Movieguide.org, which puts the film on its "abhorrent" list, calling it "twisted, laughable, frustrating, plotless, and boring ... homosexual, Neo-Marxist propaganda." I'm left wondering what movie he saw (Neo-Marxist?), but then the "review" goes so far as to brand the film as having "anti-capitalist sentiments" because it contains an unflattering picture of one employer. No comment -- beyond noting that nearly every wholesome 1930s Frank Capra picture would qualify for this label.
The funny thing is that, yes, Brokeback is a political film, but only beneath the surface -- which might have gone unbroken were it not for the film's detractors, who make the subtext impossible to ignore. Lee's film is only political in the sense that there's an inherent political message in any work that can be read as "pro gay," which Brokeback certainly is.
However, the smart-aleck references to Brokeback as his "gay cowboy picture" definitely do it a disservice -- besides, the very concept of gay-cowboy movies is pretty old hat (see the subtext in Howard Hawks' Red River, not to mention the Andy Warhol-Paul Morrissey film, Lonesome Cowboys). Yes, this is a story about gay love, and aspects of the film would not work without the gay angle (make no mistake about that.) But the movie's story of love and fear and loss is universal. I mean that in the best sense, not in the sense of "here's a film that soft-pedals its gay content in an attempt to not offend a broader audience"; Brokeback does not do that. That the fear comes from societal pressure to be heterosexual (or at least appear to be) is where the political side of the story sets in.
But that's not all there is to this film.
Instead, it's the very powerful, very real love story of two men, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), that gives Brokeback its quality and universality -- and scares the hell out of its detractors. Ennis and Jack meet as young men, when they are paired up to watch sheep over the course of a summer on Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming. Subtly crafted by Lee and screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, the build-up is the thing.
It's obvious early on that Jack is attracted to Ennis, but things take a slow course, and are shown through small, realistic gestures -- ordering soup when you don't like it, but know the other person does; tending the other person's wound, etc. -- until things finally erupt in a sexual encounter. Even then, the tryst produces as much resentment and denial as anything else. "This is a one-shot thing we got goin' on here," says Ennis. "It's nobody's business but ours," adds Jack. Ennis announces, "I ain't queer," and Jack chimes in with, "Me neither."
But it's not as easy as that, and a 20-year-long relationship is born -- despite marriages, attempts not to see each other, and even gay infidelity on Jack's part. On the one hand, the story is as old as the hills, what used to be called a tale of "star-crossed lovers" (see any version of Back Street). But Brokeback's tone is different and more persuasive because it's more real -- and made up of heartbreakingly recognizable touches. Anyone who has ever watched a loved one that may never be seen again get smaller in a rearview mirror while driving away will feel it. Anyone who has ever just kept quiet and waited till he or she was safely out of sight to break down will know its truth. Anyone who has ever sat staring out a window, chain-smoking and getting slightly drunk while waiting for someone to arrive will realize that this is the goods.
Some have objected to the film as regressive simply because it's a tragic story of gay love, but that completely misses the point. First of all, Ennis and Jack are not part of a world that even recognizes the existence of gay liberation (after all, they meet and fall in love in 1963). Ennis' father, in fact, had taken him to see a brutally murdered homosexual when Ennis was a child, and made sure the boy got "a good look" at the body to impress on him what happens to gay people. It's this impression that colors Ennis' every move -- or lack thereof -- in the story.
Moreover, it's not as if some universal acceptance of such a relationship has ever come into being. Just look at the excerpted review at the top of this page, or, worse, consider the murder of Matthew Shepherd a scant seven years ago. That the story isn't just a period piece is a tragedy; rather than invalidate the movie, however, this only serves to make Brokeback more important.
In some ways, it can be lumped with a lot of "downbeat" films (In the Bedroom, Mystic River, etc.); that's a mistake, despite that Brokeback is hardly upbeat. Lee's film carries with it something those others do not -- the inherent message that it didn't have to be like this.
Do I think the film will make an impression on the homophobe crowd? What a hope! Frankly, it'd be something if it had some impact on the basically liberal-minded folks who support gay rights, but who are still uncomfortable with the actual expression of same-sex love. And if it gives someone the courage of its "it didn't need to be like this" message, then Brokeback Mountain has accomplished much -- in addition to being one of the most gorgeous, beautifully acted and moving films of the year. Rated R for sexuality, nudity, language and some violence.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke