When trailers for Brokeback Mountain started playing in theaters a few months ago, squirming men in the audience coughed, jeered, crossed and uncrossed their legs. Gay cowboys threaten the deep-seated mythology of the Marlboro Man, and some men’s’ self image. For them, this is more of a sacrilege than gay marriage. They won’t come within a country mile of the movie, which could obliterate their prejudice.
In the cold, sharp beauty of a Wyoming mountain, two hired hands drive a thousand head of sheep to pasture. They are young, poor, uneducated, lonely men who hide their eyes beneath the brims of their hats. Jack Twist, Jake Gyllenhaal, is a rodeo dandy, all in denim; he’s always striking poses. Ennis Del Mar, Heath Ledger, is an orphan, rough and grumbling, taciturn to the point of being mute. With kindness and humor, Jack teases the life story out of him. "That’s the most I’ve heard you say in two weeks," says Jack. "That’s the most I’ve said in a year," says Ennis.
Jack sleeps at camp; Ennis sleeps with the sheep, without a fire, hiding his tent, watching for coyotes. They regard each other in the distance, dots on the landscape. One night, when the whiskey flows and the hour gets late, Ennis is too tired to go back to the sheep. He finally enters the warmth of tent and shares Jack’s bedroll; with sudden force, they have sex. Ennis was a virgin. Maybe Jack seduced him; maybe it just happened.
"I’m no queer," says Ennis. "Me neither," says Jack. Out there, far from such labels and anyone telling them they are wrong, they fall helplessly in love. But they will eventually have to come down from their mountain, back to arid nothingness. Ennis is realistic: in 1963 Wyoming, no way are two men going to live together. They could be killed.
Instead, Jack and Ennis try to lead conventional lives, but can’t disentangle from each other. Ennis’ wife Alma (Michelle Williams), the film’s most sympathetic character, tries to endure an unhappy sex life and her husband’s abandoning her and her children, and a series of jobs, to take long "fishing trips" with Jack. Like Jack and Ennis, she is completely unequipped to deal with the situation.
The Taiwanese, American-educated director of Brokeback Mountain , Ang Lee, specializes in longing in films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon . This is his most sensitive film, and his most immediate; every pickup truck that drives by could contain a posse with a tire iron and a rope. The screenplay, by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana of Lonesome Dove, follows, beat for beat, the diamond-hard short story by E. Annie Proulx. Like the movies made from the stories of Andre Dubus, each scene is precise and evocative in physical and emotional detail, and the cumulative effect can break your heart. Brokeback Mountain is a perfect film, one of the year’s best.
Brokeback Mountain is playing at Showplace East. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.