I decided to see a late matinee at my local arts theater where Brokeback Mountain was showing and unwittingly ended the year on a true highlight. From the instant the huge truck with its lights traveled across the screen and Brokeback Mountain rose to assert its presence, from the moment Ledger walked into view, the movie tore open and claimed a piece of my heart, permanently. Yesterday, New Year's Day, all I could think about was the movie, not exclusively about the plot, scenery and cast--though I've done my share of that--but rather about the way of life cowboys and others working in America's lonely backwaters lead and how some of them are, as we journey into 2006, living the very circumstances depicted by these two terrific actors. For this Irish man, it pierced for two hours and fifteen minutes the veneer of onion-layered sophistication created by a solid education, law school and years of big city living, and I almost joyously became once more the raw Irish boy who'd loved and hated in equal measure growing up in the rural backside of Ireland with all its prejudices, fears, limitations and hang-ups, including my own.
The movie is upliftingly sad rather than depressing as some gay friends have called it. Yes, uplifting sadness is the paramount emotion I'd venture is experienced by the viewer, and it is also crammed to the brim with richness and terrible beauty. And it has its minor flaws, but then many of the best movies I've loved do, also. One, for example, I could not get past was the fact Ennis had two daughters, yet only one of them appeared throughout the final third of the film. The aging of Jack (played by Gyllenhaal) from 19 to 39 is unconvincing, a visual amplified more so when one considers how well they aged Ennis (played by Ledger) and how his voice deepened, though Ledger being Australian where the culture of machismo is worshipped undoubtedly helped. And Ennis's wife Alma (played by Michelle Williams) seemed altogether too passive for my taste, especially when she accidentally witnesses and is devastated by the sight of her husband passionately kissing Jack when the two men meet up for the first time after their love affair began on Brokeback mountain. But the crushing power of that scene, as the stricken wife realizes her husband harbors a love and voracious yearning for another that is stronger than his love for her, banished the stirrings of cynicism.
Ennis is brutishly heroic, a magnificently tortured soul, a man quietly at war with himself because he is possessed of deep-seated homophobia and unable, if not indeed unwilling, to kill his all-consuming passion and love for another man. I could scarcely breathe when the two cowboys parted after their initial summer spent together on Brokeback (ostensibly forever because Ennis stated he would not return the following year in response to Jack's inquiry) as first Ennis watches Jack's truck pull away and then retreats to a dusty sidestreet where he falls to his knees, vomits, beats at the walls of the unyielding building and cries furiously; another cowboy happens by and watches and Ennis roars at him to get the fuck away, his timbre perfectly articulating the torrent of loss, confusion, denial and pain swirling within. The film is magnificent in allowing us to slowly realize that it is the stoic, reluctant Ennis whose love is the most searing, the most faithful, and, at one point, he tells Jack that meeting him has cost him everything. Ennis's life, the life of a married man with two daughters (whom he adores) which he is compelled to live because in his circumstances and milieu there is no other way, is an interminable midnight with little illumination except for occasional intense rays afforded when Jack and he meet up several times each year for a week's camping on Brokeback Mountain.
The movie is raw, breathtaking, overwhelming, all-consuming; a story as full of poignancy and universals as any of the greatest Hollywood love stories, and it does not descend at any point to cheap sentimentality or attempt to pontificate. When Ennis visits Jack's impoverished parents at one point, the subtext in the movements and looks exchanged between this rough-mannered yet vulnerable cowboy and the love-of-his-life's mother is heartbreaking to the point of inducing headache...and then, of course, there is Ennis's discovery in Jack's closet of the plaid shirt--placed over the shirt Jack wore and with the sleeves of both intertwined--he'd thought he'd lost during the first summer they'd spent together on Brokeback Mountain. (Thanks to a blog comment for pointing out an error I'd made about that.) Nor does the movie correctly offer apology for its being a love affair between two men. Rather, in its own way, with the credible sexual immediacy of the initial tryst between the two men, in its unapologetic acknowledgement that enduring love begins often with and then moves beyond raw sexual attraction, it seems to poke a finger in the eye of Hollywood's conventional, cardboard and cliched treatment of developing love relationships.
Given Hollywood's misguided and overly simplified treatment of sexuality in general, as well as its poor understanding of what the general public will or will not accept in movies, it is entirely understandable that Ledger and Gyllenhaal were 'very, very nervous' about playing two men in a love affair for fear of alienating their teenager fan base. It is testament to their strength of character and a measure of the men they are that they saw the script's power and cast convention aside, ignored their innermost fears and the shrill warnings of doom from their timid male fellow actors, agents and others in the industry, and threw themselves headlong unreservedly into the roles. In fact, Ledger in an interview said that, after the first kiss with Gyllenhaal, it was just the act of kissing another human being. How very true. And, if the teenage girls who sat next to us in the cinema are any indication, the actors need have no fear. All the girls were riveted, riveted by the story, by the love affair, by the poignancy and human condition...and their balled tissues were working overtime. Great things come only from taking great risks and Ledger and Gyllenhaal have proven their mettle as actors of the highest caliber.
The movie is correctly positioned mainstream and will be enjoyed by all, except for the homophobic (male or female), and any heterosexual men with doubts about their sexuality should probably stick to the action flicks. Congratulations to Ang Lee for another superb piece of work, to Annie Proulx who did the research and wrote the original story, and to Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana for seeing its potential and writing the script.
[technorati: Brokeback Mountain, Focus Features,Ang Lee,James Schamus, Heath Ledger,Jake Gyllenhaal,Golden Globes, Larry McMurtry,Diana Ossana,Annie Proulx