Brokeback Mountain (review)

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Gay? Not Even Mildly Content

Is there a real place called Brokeback Mountain? Or did Annie Proulx make it up? (Rhetorical — don’t deluge me with emails about the geography of the Western states.) I wonder, cuz the name so perfectly evokes misery and pain and loneliness and all those other tragically romantic heartbreaky emotions that twist your gut into a knot in the best love stories. (And this is one of the best, like, ever.) Not flat-out directly, like if it were called Heartbreak Hill or Misfortune Peak, but just enough to leave you with the kind of lingering despair, even long after the movie’s over, that makes you feel as if you were the one had your heart torn out and stomped on and ground into the dirt by cruel circumstance and the bootheels of miserable people with nothing better to do but condemn some of the love in the world, as if there was so much of it just hanging around that we could afford to do without some of it.
And I wonder too whether now, Brokeback Mountain won’t be real now… not a physical place but a cultural space, a tangible moment in time in which some folks’ eyes were opened to the pointlessness and unkindness of their bigotry. I don’t like to say stuff like “This movie could change the world!” cuz as much as I appreciate the power of movies, I just don’t think any one of them could be that powerful… but if it changes the minds and thaws the hearts of just a few people, that’s a start, maybe.

Brokeback Mountain might be able to do that because there’s nothing in the least political about it — it’s not about anything more than two people in love. The two people both happen to be men, but they’re not guys who’ve “made a lifestyle choice” or are trying to “make a statement” about anything, and perhaps the fact that these guys couldn’t be more guyish might convince those who need convincing that that’s true for everyone who’s not heterosexual. “You know I ain’t queer,” Heath Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar says with something like chagrin to Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jack Twist after they discover their mutual attraction to each other. “Me neither,” says Jack. And though this has annoyed some who rightly see that while gayness itself may not be political, the fight for acceptance certainly is, it’s nevertheless true that Ennis and Jack aren’t “queer” in the sense that is about lifestyle (or, more often, stereotypes): they are ruggedly, Marlboro Man masculine, aggressive and inarticulate, men who fit perfectly into their 1960s Mountain West ranching and hunting and fishing “lifestyle”… except that they’re gay and know full well that to let that be known in their world is, quite literally, a death sentence. If nothing else, Brokeback‘s challenge to traditional images of masculinity — and that they do not always signify what we think they signify — is quite a blow by itself.

In one sense, the tortured path Ennis and Jack travel together could be a gay one only incidentally, as they age from hot young lovers to a couple of (sorta) comfortable old farts — the simple, familiar terrain of a romantic relationship is instantly recognizable, and Ledger (Casanova, The Brothers Grimm) and Gyllenhaal (Jarhead, The Day After Tomorrow) beautifully navigate all the little moments of tenderness and anger, frustration and joy that a longtime couple experiences. (Their one sex scene is so unforgettably scorching and so looms over the whole film that you might forget that they do have just the one, but their attraction for each other remains palpable, and serves as a searing reminder that romantic love, gay or straight, is about sex; sure, it’s about other things, too, but sexually attraction is pretty much the basis, and straight “romances” often seem to forget that, are either about some kind of seemingly sexless love or some kind of seemingly loveless sex but only rarely manage to convincingly combine the two.)

But of course, their lives together — which is limited; mostly, they’re apart — are tortured because they’re gay, because of all the subtle narrow-mindedness they feel in the air around them. There is no place for a couple like them in their world, so much so that there is never any question that they will each marry a woman and have children — Ennis’s marriage to Alma (Michelle Williams: The Station Agent) and Jack’s to Lureen (Anne Hathaway: The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement, Ella Enchanted) are both disasters in their own way, layering tragedy upon tragedy: it’s more than just gays who suffer when we as a culture stifle people like we do. So Ennis and Jack may be recognizably, orientation-blind romantic, but their story wouldn’t be so damn heartbreaking if it didn’t have hanging over it the terrible weight of stupid senselessness. There’s no reason, not really, why Ennis and Jack shouldn’t be able to live their lives as they want — that’s the thing that’ll make ya wanna cry just thinking about the movie three days after you see it.

None of that is said — there’s very little overt in Brokeback Mountain. Director Ang Lee’s (Hulk, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) beautiful sad empty mountain vistas say some, but mostly, it’s Ennis — Ledger is extraordinary here, so still and constant and beaten — who carries not just a heavy burden of secrecy but also of a genuine, fear-rooted understanding of the need for secrecy, a miserable counter to Jack’s optimism in the face of vicious intolerance. The Jacks of the world, they suffer, but they let the rage out. The Ennises? They just get eaten up inside and wither away. And that is unbearably heartrending, and we should all be ashamed of ourselves that we are the engineers of such wretchedness.

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