Many have criticized Ang Lee’s style as being restrained to a fault, inexpressive, but I would argue that Lee’s approach is exactly what this material requires. The love shared between Ennis and Jack, after all, has to be negotiated in a very careful way; the lovers must delicately pick their way through the briars of social mores so as not to disrupt the tranquil landscape of normalcy over a twenty-year period. Ang Lee, along with his screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana (working from a short story by Annie Proulx), portrays the relationship that builds between Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) with precise, deliberate patience. The big-sky cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, more than being just magnificent, underscores the equilibrium that must be maintained in the social order by way of its carefully balanced compositions. This balance is only offset in those brief but seismic moments in the narrative when Ennis and Jack upset the social equilibrium by succumbing to their passionate impulses.
McMurtry and Ossana’s script builds masterfully in the first hour as the two cowboys, working for an unscrupulous rancher on the eponymous mountain, strike up a camaraderie before deeper, more romantic, feelings spark between them. The sense that theirs is a guilt-ridden, confusing and furtive relationship is the most heart-wrenching element of the whole thing; in one way or another, we’ve all struggled or continue to struggle to reconcile personal yearnings with societal pressures and dogmas. The individual is usually, if not always, at the losing end of that fight. We know this deep down, and that private knowledge is what prompts our engagement with Ennis and Jack. Ledger and Gyllenhaal deliver brave, creditable performances and each serves his character honestly: Gyllenhaal’s Jack is an open-hearted soul, apt to express his love and angst directly, and he alone can see through the armor of macho reticence that Ledger’s Ennis continually wears. Ennis, for his part, harbors a barely-controlled hostility towards the world, towards himself, and it’s scary to witness those moments when it is unleashed.
Upon finishing their work on the mountain, the two men part ways and, over the next several years, follow a socially regimented path–both marry women from their local communities and raise families. The story flattens and lags during these sequences, as Ennis and Jack settle into a life of monotonous domesticity. Lee isn’t sure what to do during these scenes, and they lifelessly blur together. It’s only when Jack contacts Ennis and the two renew their ties that the drama kicks into gear again. You can’t keep the lid on such overheated emotions, though, and it’s painful to watch Ennis’ wife, Alma (tenderly played by Michelle Williams) negotiate her marriage through this impossible terrain. Jack’s wife, Lureen (Anne Hatheway)–at once a bronco-busting tomboy and a porcelain doll of a housewife (in other words, the feminine ideal of the American West) seems either to be living in perpetual denial or in plain ignorance. Lee’s treatment of her is ambiguous, but Hatheway is up to the challenge, mixing grit and gentility in composing Lureen’s outer facade. But behind her dark, saucer-like eyes, she could well be nursing unspeakable heartbreak. By the end, we’ve come closer to her heart, but the social bastions behind which she resides will keep us forever from her truth.
The movie majestically traverses twenty years in Jack and Ennis’ lives. In its final stretch, as the men grapple with how and whether to continue their relationship, Lee’s story gathers steam again, but wisely chooses neither to judge their actions nor the actions of the hostile-seeming world–the only world either of them knows–in which they must live out their lives.
Brokeback is paced slowly, the tensions tightening little by little in a protracted linkage of small, domestic scenes. For that reason alone, it’s a rare occasion–a story that we don’t see often, if at all, from today’s Hollywood. Lee’s reined-in exposition is reminiscent of the kind mastered by humanist filmmakers like Jean Renoir and Satyajit Ray. A gallery of worthy performances, crisp direction and a quietly graceful script make Brokeback Mountain something of a landmark in Hollywood’s 2005 slate of movies. What keeps it from scaling to the heights of a masterpiece, I think, is its reluctance to sound deeper: The situations and characters remain fairly static and simplistic, treading the brave but, ultimately, familiar territory of the Tragic Love Story. It’s homosexual themes may spark debate in certain corners, but Brokeback Mountain, at heart, is an age-old and universally resonant parable of how societies conspire to kill anything they do not and cannot understand.
Directed by: Ang Lee
Written by: Larry McMurtry, Diana Ossana
Cast: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway, Randy Quaid