Growing up in the fifties meant that cowboys had a special place in my young life. We would schedule our play time and home work around the various westerns that where on television. Watching Roy Rogers, The Lone Ranger and other such shows would inspire our play with toy six guns and cowboy hats. This was a simple time. The good guys wore white hats, the bad guys black. Even the girls wrote outfits straight from the Dale Evens line. The cowboy has always been the epitome of the classic American hero, tough, fair and honest. Perhaps it was this glorification that has resulted in the plethora of jokes that surrounded Brokeback Mountain. People call it a ‘gay’ cowboy movie. Mostly this seems to come from people whose only exposure to the film is listening to the jokes that where told constantly on late night talk shows. In reality this is a sensitive portrayal of an emotionally disputative journey taken by two friends.
The story starts in Wyoming in 1963 where two drifters, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gylenhaal) are looking for work. They are employed by a local sheep rancher Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid) who hires them to look after his flocks up on the remote Brokeback Mountain. One is to camp at the foot of the mountain while the other will go up to sheep. During a night of inclement weather the more outgoing Jack joins the sullen and quiet Ennis. Ennis begins to explore the possibility of a sexual relationship and is initially rebuffed by Jack. Soon Jack gives in and the two men have sex. Although the two, particularly Jack dismiss the events as a one time thing and profess that they are not ‘queer’ purely physical a relationship soon elevates to a more emotional involvement. The men begin to ignore their duties resulting in wolves and coyotes feast upon the heard. Aguirre fires the boys, not from prejudice but for financial reasons. It doesn’t matter if the pair where up there drinking and playing cards instead of having a physical relationship, they did not do their jobs and Aguirre lost a substantial portion of his income.
The two boys came into this situation with a lot of baggage. Ennis starkly remembers a time when his father took him to see two old men that lived together beaten to death. Ennis always suspected that his father’s homophobia resulted in him at least instigating the beatings. Jack had been on the road as a part time rodeo rider and was always more sexually experimental. Later on he would give in to his physical needs and pick up a male prostitute in Mexico. Eventually, both boys grow to full manhood and try to settle down. Ennis marries Alma (Michelle Williams) and the couple quickly find themselves parents to two daughters. Jack tries a more socially acceptable relationship with a girl named Cassie (Linda Cardellini) but soon marries the equally outgoing cowgirl Lurene (Anne Hathaway) and the family is joined with a son. Even though Jack and Ennis are ostensibly happily married they continue their relationship with annual ‘fishing trips’. The wives know on some level but are reluctant to face their husbands disrupting their lives.
To say that Brokeback Mountain is a gay cowboy movie is like saying that Casablanca is about a night spot in the desert. It is an undeserving over simplification that those who have seen the film will attest. This is about human emotions, not just the emotional quagmire of two bi-sexual men, but emotions common to all human beings. Ennis and Jack fell in love not because of the social stigma against such a relationship but in spite of it. The story concerns itself not only with the relationship between the men and the inherent difficulties but more on the strain it places on their other relationships with their wives. The women here grew up like we all did thinking of cowboys and herders as the last bastion of real men left in a metro-sexual world. To find out that the men they love, the father of their children are cheating on them, with men, the emotional impact is devastating to them. The scenes where they have to confront their spouses about the infidelity could easily have been the same if the paramour was female.
In order for a controversial film like this to succeed the right cast is crucial. Fortunately, this film boasts one of the best groups of young actors around today. Between his role as Jack here and his work in Jarhead Jake Gylenhaal has certainly put ‘Bubble Boy’ far behind him, joining the list of actors that have risen about really bad early roles to reach the top of his craft. He has paid his dues and can now be counted among the few male actors able to open a film on his own merit. The portrayal of Jack is stoic, almost reminiscent of James Dean, a man of few words that can act with the squint of his eyes and a turn of his mouth. His Jack is a man confused by life and his feelings. He truly loves his wife but he can’t leave Jack behind. Heath Ledger gives a great counterpoint to Jack with the boisterous Ennis. He is the one that instigates the relationship, for a physical past time at first but Ledger goes beyond the surface and lets the audience understand Ennis and the turmoil he is swept into. Since most of the press for this film centered around the men too little attention was given to the excellent performances by the young women here. Anne Hathaway is breaking away from her Disney princess roles ad has been successful in taking on more adult roles. After a car wreck of Havoc she is afforded an opportunity to show off her acting talent instead of just her well trimmed body. Hathaway has the range to go from the cheerful young girl that marries Ennis to the distraught wife that has to face the reality she never imagined. Most know Michelle Williams from her stint on the television series Dawson’s Creek or perhaps as the young Sil in Species. She has honed her skills with a series of little independent flicks and was more than up to the emotionally difficult role as Alma. Even the smaller female roles such as the one given to Linda Cardellini provides a view at talent above what most films can even hope for.
I have been a fan of director Ang Lee since I first came upon ‘The Ice Storm’ years ago. There is one thing about Lee; you never know what type of film he will do next. He is one of the most versatile and talented directors around. Lee uses the scenery as part of the cast. Many who have seen the film have called about the beautiful Wyoming location only to find the film was made in Alberta, Canada. He doesn’t seem to be overly concerned with the homosexual aspects of the story, he presents a tale of two men that are overcome by their situation and must face the consequences. Lee paces the film perfectly; it flows like a mountain stream pulling the audience into the story. Ironically, the only full frontal nudity shown here is with Ms Hathaway and Ms Williams. For a movie that most think of as between two gay men the ladies are shown as full sexual beings instead of just an excuse to cover the affair. An American director may have been too influenced by the mythos surround the cowboy to let go and do this film properly, Lee rose above it all and just made a powerful, human story.
Universal has made the rare move to release this film to DVD while it is still playing in the theaters. In doing this they show that they are responsive to the demands of the consumers, as well of course striking while the Oscar buzz is still there. The DVD is beautifully done. Please, forget the fact that there is a Pan & Scan version and pick up the widescreen. The anamorphic transfer is spectacular. The widescreen version displays the scenery at its best. The color palette is reference quality. The contrast is dead on. The audio is presented in a full, rich Dolby 5.1. All six speakers are put to the best use possible. The rear speakers provide a sweeping ambience that puts you into the middle of the film. The extras are well considered and ad a lot to the enjoyment of the film. ‘Directing from the Heart’ offers Ang Lee an opportunity to take the viewer on what it took to bring this film to the screen. There is a script to screen featurette by writers Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana that details what was needed to bring the short story by Annie Proulx to life. Forget the late night jokes, put aside what you may have heard and get this film.