Dir. Ang Lee. Starring Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams
More than a decade later, Brokeback Mountain is undoubtedly the best American movie of 2005 and, purely from back of the napkin work, probably one of the best American movies of the aughts. It’s a movie of striking bravery simply for the topic at hand; in 2005, only Massachusetts had legalized same-sex marriages (which I use as a handy statement of national opinion at the time, and not to say that LGBTQIA rights are or should be bound up in marriage). To call Brokeback Mountain a groundbreaking queer film is incorrect; that would be one heck of a way to erase New Queer Cinema folks like Van Sant or Haynes or Jarman, or wicked transgressive filmmakers like John Waters, or, heck, to pretend that Weimar Republic cinema never happened. What it did was make queer people in movies safe for straight people. Everyone had seen October Sky and Ten Things I Hate About You already, and Gyllenhaal and Ledger were both name-brand actors and teen-girl heartthrobs to boot. There is a single scene of gay sex, and the rest is suggested, or limited to fierce kissing or embraces. It is a starter kit, not a liberation. None of that keeps it from being a really excellent film.
Ang Lee is part of a curious fraternity. Many men have won Best Director at the Academy Awards for films which did not win Best Picture, but very few have done it twice. Frank Borzage did it, but at the first and fifth Oscars. John Ford managed it three times (his only Best Picture/Best Director sweep was for How Green Was My Valley). George Stevens did it twice in the ’50s, and is the charter member of the even more exclusive club Lee belongs to: both men won two Best Director awards for movies which didn’t win Best Picture, and neither one (has) directed a Best Picture winner. By rights, Lee shouldn’t be part of either club at all. In Brokeback, he showcases his great gift for making everything beautiful. He’s been giftwrapped a mountain in Wyoming – and, between the Ledger-Gyllenhaal-Williams-Hathaway quartet, maybe a historically good-looking group of leading actors – but he also has to take you off the mountain. We follow Jack (Gyllenhaal) into dive bars and ’70s fashion sense. For much of the movie, Ennis (Ledger) lives in a hole in the wall with his daughters where no one turns the lights on. All of it is somehow beautiful. Gyllenhaal in the dive bar is lit in blues, and the ’70s are meticulously clean and posed, as if they’d escaped from an Austen film Lee had done before. Ennis’ apartment is dirty, more indigo than the cobalt that lights up Jack. Williams’ sad eyes lend a weariness to the setting which dims it even more, filling shot after shot with the kind of hopeless longing that we’d usually look for in Inge. In my opinion, the most hypnotic and alluring setting of all is the house where Jack grew up. It’s entirely whitewashed on the inside, with the cracks spidering and with only old, gray-brown bare wood. How anyone could live there without losing his mind is beyond me, but over the course of minutes it is a breathtaking place to watch the film. What they don’t tell you about looking at an all-white environment is that every other color looks like it came directly from the liveliest Pantone ad. The look of the film is rapturous even without the mountain, and to make the pedantic so lovely is far more impressive than adding grit or grime.
The closest parallel I can think of to Ennis and Jack’s relationship comes from Passion, the Sondheim musical based on Ettore Scola’s film Passion of Love. Part of the reason I connect the two is the relationship they share, which is much more like what Giorgio and Clara share than what Giorgio and Fosca end up with by play’s end. Giorgio, at first content to share Clara with Clara’s husband and son, comes to believe that if they were really in love, they would run off together and “manage,” living primarily off said love. Clara demurs, and does so until it’s too late; in the end, Giorgio spurns her for being too calculated. “You can’t just try it out – what’s love unless it’s unconditional? Love doesn’t give a damn about tomorrow, and neither do I!” he proclaims. Jack is Giorgio here, the one who is, at least academically, willing to toss everything else in his life aside to live honestly. He has half a plan; with whatever money his father-in-law will pay him to screw off, he and Ennis could live in the wilderness somewhere on a little ranch. Ennis is Clara; he’ll still have child support to pay his wife, and he’ll miss his girls, and most importantly, when Ennis was a boy his father made a point to show him the corpse of a gay man he may have lynched himself. “If you can’t fix it,” Ennis says resignedly, “you gotta stand it.”
The second reason that I see Passion in Brokeback Mountain is because I have a really hard time putting the word “love” on what they have. Is it a love affair if Ennis and Jack have to put each other away for months on end? Is it a love affair if they have no contact except to communicate the time and place of their next “fishing trip?” Is it a love affair if they’re married, dating, or having sex with other people? Love is repeated, over and over again, with marked consistency. If they did what Jack wanted – if they ran off together – then it would be love. They would have a chance at loving one another in an environment they could build together. But that’s impossible. If they cannot really love one another, it’s not their fault: it’s the fault of their surroundings, the time and place that not only would keep them apart and in pain, but would threaten to kill them or ostracize them or criminalize them if it ever found them together. Even on Brokeback Mountain there’s no real safety. Paul Aguirre (Randy Quaid, of all people), the man who hires the two then-strangers to watch his flock of sheep for a summer, comes up unexpectedly after Ennis and Jack have fallen for each other. He sees them chasing each other around, wrestling, shirtless. He knows something is up, and in August, presumably unable to stomach the idea of employing men who like men, he brings the flock down a month early. What Ennis and Jack share is passion. Neither one of them can give the other up, despite the consequences they’re already facing. (I think everyone in the world was doing some variant on “I wish I knew how to quit you” in 2005.) Both of them are possessed by their desire for the other, sacrificing work and families to steal time with a secret lover.
What’s really striking about the film is the way that it can credibly portray just about everyone – Ennis, Jack, Alma, Lureen, their three kids, Cassie, even Lureen’s parents – as victims of the prejudice that some of them probably even share. Ennis and Jack are victimized directly by the society they live in, and in some ways through themselves. If Jack had more self-control, or if Ennis wasn’t so literally Puritanical about self-denial, then they might not be so victimized. Alma and Lureen and their children are all victims, trapped in loveless marriages (or contentious divorces) with men who, despite their best intentions, were never capable of making either woman the star in their lives. Alma (Williams) finds out very quickly that her husband is in love with another man: she sees them making out. What’s remarkable is how long she bears it – like Ennis, she’s willing to stand what she can’t fix. But she doesn’t ask her husband about it until they’re divorced, doesn’t mention it until one Thanksgiving when she tells him how she wrote a note in his tackle box which went absolutely untouched during a supposed fishing trip. Lureen (Anne Hathaway), who goes from perky to constantly over an adding machine with Dolly Parton’s wig on in about ten seconds flat, seems not to know about her husband’s secret – or maybe to be totally apathetic about it – until the end.
What happens to Jack is nebulous, although some of the possibilities are much stronger than others. It’s not the first time that we see a vision of a queer man (the “gay cowboy” thing is overstated, seeing as both men could well be bisexual and neither one is strictly speaking a cowboy anyway) lynched and left out as a warning. But there’s also not any proof one way or another that he was murdered; perhaps that’s what really happened, plastered over the lie Lureen tells Ennis on the phone; perhaps Lureen knows what happened to her husband but doesn’t want to relive it, and so can’t help but see her husband beaten to death and tells the tale of a exploding tire; perhaps Ennis has an active imagination and can’t help but connect Jack’s death to what he saw when he was a boy. In any event, one thing is made clear through a very fine performance from Hathaway, predictive of what will come in a couple years; Lureen now has a name and a voice to associate with the fishing buddy who never did any fishing. As a coda, we find out Jack’s ashes are to be interred in the family plot that his stubborn old father paid for. As desperate as he was to get away, Jack can’t even be dead away from the life he tried to escape.
Love stories are overrated anyway. By rejecting any way to bring Ennis and Jack together peacefully and shamelessly for any real amount of time, Brokeback Mountain enters the same firmament as Brief Encounter or Atonement; in other words, it’s so hurtful that the movie practically becomes English. The denouement is peculiarly American. It’s not enough for the man to ship himself off to South Africa, or for the man to die of septicemia and the woman to drown in the Blitz, but one of the principals has to be murdered, the victim of a hate crime. No one raises their voice after Jack has appeared on screen one last time, but the entire effect is still absolutely explosive.