Many budding gay men learned about the power of spit lube from Brokeback Mountain, for which we should be grateful to Annie Proulx and director Ang Lee. In 2016 it’s hard to believe this Hollywood weeper started such chatter in early 2006: talk show appearances in which an uncomfortable Jake Gyllenhaal and less uncomfortable Heath Ledger laughed off their kiss; thousands of words of slash fiction exploring every doomed facet (I read one where livid rancher Joe Aguirre, played by Randy Quaid, does unspeakable things to Jack Twist because he’s more repressed than Ennis Del Mar); and an Oscar ceremony proving with the coronation of Crash that the worst Hollywood partisans are Hollywood partisans. They got something right, though: insiders will take the message picture over the romance. Sam Goldwyn and Louis Mayer knew. It even won an Oscar for Best Cinematography because Academy voters confuse National Geographic nature photography for compositions.
In my series of Stylus Magazine excavations I’ve republished my review, written the day before Christmas Eve. I liked the movie so far as it went, recognizing its absurdities and limits. For a while, however, Brokeback Mountain became one of those decent movies that affected me. I got defensive when people knocked it. In 2005 and early 2006 I referred people to Tropical Malady, aware damn well that it was all for nought. Now the picture looks like what David Thomson predicted: a curiosity.
They meet, they herd, they fuck, they marry women, they die. Looming before Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) is Brokeback Mountain, in whose shadow they’ll remain for the rest of their rather miserable lives. On the slope which gives Ang Lee’s film (based on E. Anne Proulx’s 1997 short story) its name, Ennis and Jack revel in the love-that-dare-not-speak-its-name, with the full awareness that what began as a impulse born of loneliness will remain so.
The year is 1963. Hired by a scowling rancher (played by Randy Quaid, chewing a toothpick with quiet menace) to tend his flock of sheep for the summer—an idea that rightly confounds a contemporary audience—Ennis and Jack’s days mostly consist of smoking and cutting trees for firewood. What little talk occurs comes in grunts from the reticent Ennis, whose year in high school and miserable childhood (he was raised by a sister and brother) don’t give him much to talk about anyway. On a cold night, awash in whiskey, Ennis crawls into Jack’s tent; Jack, the more brazen of the pair, makes the first move.
Their relationship—I use the term loosely—will mimic the clumsy groping of their first sexual experience. Each acquires a devoted wife (Michelle Williams) who, in Ennis’ case, will care for ailing children and register with devastating quietude the sight of her husband making out with another man; and in Jack’s, the heiress of a farming equipment fortune (Anne Hathaway, of whom there is precious little) whose increasingly outré hairdos have more verve than Jack himself.
A director almost sunnily at ease with repression, Ang Lee can’t make Brokeback Mountain very erotic, let alone funny. So let’s get this out of the way: there isn’t enough sex in this film, and I wanted more of it. Just a handful of scenes between Ennis and Jack show the gingerly, coltish affection that only two young men in love can project; never let it be said that homosexual courtship follows hetero patterns. The actors (Gyllenhaal in particular) are game; Lee and screenwriters Larry McMurty and Diane Ossana don’t match their daring. If we are to believe that Ennis and Jack’s love hollows them, Lee must trace how a physical attraction deepens into this earthshaking phenomenon. These are, after all, two men, not a man and woman, and as such the feel of flesh should provide the metaphysical elements Gyllenhaal’s Jack yearns for, and the didactic screenplay makes explicit. Your mother wouldn’t get offended.
It’s strange: in films like The Ice Storm and this one Lee subverts his gift for narrative by resorting to rather portentous symbolism (remember all those shots of frozen flowers?). For Lee, block-letter narratives bespeak his commitment to maintaining the integrity of his source material, and it lets the audience off the hook much too often. The contrast between the airy, green vistas of Brokeback (where Ennis and Jack did their foolin’ and fuckin’) and the dank rented rooms and trailers in which Ennis and his family live is reductive (to be fair, this hobbled the Proulx story too). The obvious answer is the old adage: if repression’s your theme, you probably wear a corset yourself.
Heath Ledger has generated a lot of acclaim for his ay-yup performance, and he’s certainly memorable: Ennis is like one of those men you meet casually on an airplane whose craggy sullen faces disguise a lifetime of sorrow. Ledger makes us understand that Ennis’ reserve is actually a distortion of his homosexual panic, as well as a shield which attempts (and fails) to hide the fact that Ennis is essentially a ne’er-do-well. Around his children he’s stagy and awkward, with a forced good cheer a lot like Ronald Reagan’s. He can barely muster the libido to nuzzle his wife (although with all those kids maybe he thought he didn’t need to). Even his relationship with the increasingly desperate Jack never breaks the harmless rhythm of a strong platonic attachment, and it’s here, in the picture’s last third, when Lee taps Gyllenhaal’s strengths to create something truly sad.
Given his weakness for characters of vaporous sensitivity that prefer the company of talking rabbits and Jennifer Aniston, it’s a relief that Gyllenhaal actually gives a performance instead of relying on those doleful and admittedly beautiful blue eyes. Brokeback Mountain is the first film in which he’s tacitly acknowledged that nothing gives us as an audience greater pleasure than to admire gorgeous people. He’s never been sexier than in the scene, barely five minutes into the movie, in which, leaning against a trailer, he sizes up Ennis as if thinking, This will do. It’s worthy of Montgomery Clift (who no doubt writhed in sodomic longing too). To the audience (and probably Ennis too), Gyllenhaal’s Jack seems the most obviously gay—at least that’s how Lee tags him. His father-in-law can barely conceal his contempt for the ex-rodeo star; he visits Mexico to pick up hustlers; and even, in a manner of speaking, comes out to his parents when he shares his dream of tending a ranch with Ennis. But essential to Gyllenhaal’s acting is the naiveté that is as much a tragic flaw as Ennis’ self-hate.
Brokeback Mountain ends with Ennis worshipping Jack, a memory now as worthless as the ashes of those fires they lit on the side of their beloved retreat. Everybody’s got his number now: his wife, his oldest daughter (a lovely performance of benumbed alertness by Kate Mara), the girlfriend he won’t marry. Earlier in the film Lee had shown us the wages of fear: Ennis, framed like a parody of John Wayne in the last shot of The Searchers, vomiting at the conclusion of his and Jack’s golden summer. This was most unconvincing; Ennis would as soon throw up as read Proust for solace. Brokeback Mountainis effective and hence affecting when Lee swallows his characters’ suppressed ardor in his austere conceptions and compositions. It’s a curious achievement, alright: a powerful film celebrating renunciation. On second thought, forget Mom and ask Pope Benedict XVI to be your date.