Ang Lee’s unmissable and unforgettable Brokeback Mountain hits you like a shot in the heart. It’s a landmark film and a triumph for Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, who bring deep reserves of feeling to this defiantly erotic love story about two Wyoming ranch hands and the external and internal forces that drive them from desire to denial. Directed with piercing intelligence and delicacy by Lee, the film of Annie Proulx’s 1997 short story — the unerring script by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana is a model of literary adaptation — wears its emotions on its sleeve.
That leaves the film vulnerable. The media keep tagging it as the gay cowboy movie, the queer Gone With the Wind, the Western that puts the poke in cowpoke. Coupled with the rise of homophobia as church and state shout down gay marriage, the film is up against it.
Do me a favor: See the movie first and make your judgments later. It’s an eye-opener. The story begins in 1963, when ranch boss Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid) hires Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) to herd sheep up on Wyoming’s Brokeback Mountain. Ennis is quiet, but whiskey and Jack’s talk about his rodeo riding loosens Ennis’ tongue and his inhibitions. One cold night they share a bedroll. Jack gives the impression of experience. For Ennis, this is nothing he’d done before, but no instructional manual is needed.
Proulx writes it this way: “They never talked about sex, let it happen, at first only in the tent at night, then in full daylight with the hot sun striking down, and at evening in the fire glow, quick, rough, laughing and snorting, no lack of noises, but saying not a goddamn word except once Ennis said, ‘I’m not no queer,’ and Jack jumped in with ‘Me neither.’ “
Lee and the gifted cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Amores Perros) transform Proulx’s terse prose into expansive visual poetry. Shooting in Alberta, Canada, Lee avoids trite postcard prettiness to find the beauty and terror in nature that mirror the vivid and sometimes violent relationship between the two men. “It’s nobody’s business but ours,” Jack tells Ennis.
He’s wrong, of course. Joe spots them with his binoculars and never hires them again. Ennis marries Alma (Michelle Williams) and has two daughters. Jack moves to Texas, marries Lureen (Anne Hathaway) and has a son. Living a lie is easier than dealing with the truth, at least it is for Ennis until Jack pays a visit — his first in four years.
Lee’s filmmaking mastery has never been more evident. Watch the skill with which the Taiwanese director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Sense and Sensibility walks the volatile ground of this reunion scene. Ennis can’t contain his excitement. Running down the steps to greet his friend, he collides with Jack’s body, kissing him fiercely and Jack returning the heat. Alma sees it too, from the window, finding reinforcement for something she’s always felt. Without dialogue, Lee creates a whole world that can be read eloquently and movingly on the faces of the actors.
And what actors. Though the characters must age twenty years, Lee has cast the film young, a risk that pays major dividends. Hathaway (The Princess Diaries) excels at showing Lureen’s journey from cutie-pie to hard case. And Williams (Dawson’s Creek) is a revelation, using what Proulx calls Alma’s “misery voice” when her husband goes fishing several times a year with Jack. Who can blame her? They never bring home any fish. When Alma remarries and lets Ennis feel the knife of her resentment, Williams lets it rip.
Of course, the movie would not work at all if the two lead actors didn’t deliver the goods. Gyllenhaal finds the reckless core in Jack, who cruises alleys and bars in Mexico when Ennis rejects his offer to settle down and run his father’s ranch. Ennis lives in fear of coming out — he relates a harrowing childhood incident in which he saw a man tortured and killed for the crime of living with another man. And so he forbids himself happiness with the one person he has ever truly loved.
Ledger’s magnificent performance is an acting miracle. He seems to tear it from his insides. Ledger doesn’t just know how Ennis moves, speaks and listens; he knows how he breathes. To see him inhale the scent of a shirt hanging in Jack’s closet is to take measure of the pain of love lost. As Jack told him once, “That ol’ Brokeback got us good.” That’s the key reason — besides its daring, its bravery, its dead-on relevance to right now — that this classic in the making ranks high on the list of the year’s best movies. It gets you good.