Fire on the mountain
By Steven Snyder
Months before mainstream audiences ever had a chance to buy tickets for Brokeback Mountain which they did in droves last weekend, as city theaters averaged a mind boggling $109,000 per Brokeback screen it was already well known in political circles as the gay cowboy movie.
What will likely surprise everyone, however, is how little of this gay cowboy movie focuses on, well, the gay cowboys. In fact, thats precisely the point: This is not a love story between two men, but instead a tragedy about two lovers in 1960s Wyoming who are living in a time and place that will never accept them, or their happiness.
If, as it has been said, love is the harmony of two souls singing together, then Brokeback Mountain is the heartbreaking dissonance of two souls denied their only chance at joy, and also a sobering commentary on the damage they leave in their wake as theyre forced to try and fit in.
Director Ang Lee, who deserves praise for his willingness to embrace the silence and solitude of this enclosed world, grounds us in this place and time with remarkable ease.
Two pickups pull up to a mobile trailer, and two silent cowboys emerge, waiting for any word of seasonal work. Amid the silence we are introduced to these characters who will come to grow, more or less, in a world of many gestures and few words. Ennis (Heath Ledger) stands on the steps of the trailer, silent and still. Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) is far more animated, kicking his scrappy car and then pausing to lean against his car in macho fashion a not so subtle pose in Ennis direction.
When the two are paired up as sheepherders, one responsible for maintaining a base camp and the other responsible for sleeping among the sheep to protect them from coyotes, their relationship develops in a more domestic setting. Jack descends the mountain every morning for breakfast and returns every evening for dinner. Ennis washes clothes and dishes, and heads off on horseback to find food. The rest of the time they remain divided by the mountain, a symbol of the sexual tension that begins to develop over meals of beans and elk.
When one night this tension turns to lust, it feels less like a celebration of whats in their hearts than a crude, explosive surrendering to the passions they can no longer deny. Late at night, atop a frozen mountain, their tough façade chips and they allow themselves, if only for a moment, to be the real person they have hidden from everyone else in their life.
Little acting training could have prepared Ledger or Gyllenhaal for these minimalist parts, yet they play them with such perfect nuance and pitch that the story becomes theirs. We lose sight of the actors as we gain appreciation for their characters, and come to see past their public disguise to their unspoken, hidden desires. Ledger, as Ennis, keeps his head down and his lips taut, the kind of man who does his job, pays his bills, takes care of his children and often struggles for words when it comes to his emotions. Gyllenhaal is the more expressive of the two, the emotional catalyst who continues reaching out when Ledger would rather hunker down and blend in.
Its no surprise, we come to realize, that Jack is the one who instigates that first nights passions, and also the one who continues to bring Ennis back to this mountain this oasis that allows them to rediscover the life they could have had if it wasnt Wyoming, if it wasnt the 60s, if they werent cowboys, and if they didnt live in America.
The film is divided into two halves: Their initial relationship both personal and professional on the mountain, and the following twenty years in their lives, as both become husbands and fathers. Through it all they continue to return to Brokeback, as fishing buddies of course, their only brief reprieve from a hellish reality that Lee constructs as a mix of unspoken societal pressures (rumblings of homophobic murders litter the film), spoken economic pressures (Ennis struggles while Jack prospers), and an excruciating routine built around women, children and family.
And this disconnect, between the real Jack and Ennis on the mountain, and the fake Jack and Ennis at home, causes genuine pain. Ennis wife does not feel loved and Ennis is torn between love for Jack and love for his kids in this world, he must choose between the two just as Jack finds himself trapped in a job and marriage he would leave in an instant if Ennis gave the word.
Brokeback Mountain is not a romance about two men in love, but an emotional epic about two men who are never allowed to love. Its sense of tragedy stems from the tide of time; the horrific discovery by Jack and Ennis that life has passed them by a life only lived in weeks, spread out over decades, confined to the slopes of a mountain worlds away.