Almost Classic Doomed-Love Story Brokeback Mountain Maps An Affair To Remember
The two men pace outside the foreman’s shack and eye each other like feral cats. They’re both hoping to shepherd under the unforgiving Wyoming sky through the ugliest parts of the year. It’s thankless and lonely work, but it’s the only job for which poor laborers like Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) are qualified. They get the job, they saddle up, they cook beans and pitch tents and play the harmonica and whittle and, Jesus Christ, how much longer do we have to watch these two guys sit by the fire and say nothing? We all know why we’re here. If we wanted scenery, we’d be watching Rio Bravo at home.
Soon boredom gives way to drinking. Crammed together—and tipsy—in a tent one night, Jack absent-mindedly draws Ennis’ arm around him as he sleeps. Ennis reacts so violently to this advance it’s as if he’s fending off a chemical reaction in himself, a combustive brew of internal paradox that propels him to fight off Jack’s touch with a ferocity equaled by how frantically he unlatches his own belt buckle and shoves Jack to the ground. It is impossible to retreat from the raw power of the men’s Rubiconian mating. There is nothing polite about the way they fuck. This scene doesn’t have a crevice of insincerity, not a spare molecule of uncombusted emotion where unintended laughter can find ignition. Unfortunately, Brokeback Mountain soon retreats to a measured, agonizingly subtle mood and backs away from the high-water mark set by this formidable scene.
For a while, though, the movie works. The men return to civilization and, uncertain how they’re supposed to behave now, choose female clones of themselves to marry. Ennis weds his similarly frontier-sturdy fiancée, Alma (Michelle Williams), quickly fathering two children he lugs everywhere as if they were his heterosexual credentials, while Jack catches the eye of the equally dark-haired and dazzlingly grinned Lureen (an underrated Anne Hathaway) and embarks on a career in farm equipment sales. Between responsibilities, secrecy, and self-doubt, the two men sneak away when they can to their mountain, where all things seem possible, where Ennis’ slitted eyes finally lose their wary clench and become nearly as open and luminous as his lover’s. “It could be like this always,” Jack hints. Ennis shakes his head and recalls a childhood tableau—the bloodied body of a neighbor, executed by a mob for the crime of sharing a ranch with another man.
Praise is due to Brokeback’s entire cast—especially Ledger, who invests Ennis with a deep, unstaunchable anxiety that bleeds through his every interaction. Watch him in the scene where he’s waiting for his “fishing buddy” Jack to return after a four-year absence. He slugs down longnecks and fiddles with his cigarette butts, trying so hard to keep his Marlboro man exterior when underneath he’s as excited as a teenage girl waiting for a date to arrive. For all Ledger’s skill, however, he’s best at expressing Ennis’ vestigial tenderness in scenes where Gyllenhaal is absent. A profound moment between Ennis and a discarded denim jacket is more moving than any of the interactions with Jack clad in it. And when Williams and Hathaway come on the scene, both actors look frankly happy they get to kiss a girl this time.
Brokeback Mountain might be remembered for its bluntness but, barring its gay-love scenes, it’s more accurately oblique. We know characters such as Jack and Ennis say much by saying little, like cowboys should, and are prisoners of an unsympathetic time—as gay characters often find themselves. But entire scenes begin and end without any clarity about what’s being implied, such as when Ennis, glowering and backlit by a fireworks display, beats up some foul-mouthed bikers at a July 4th picnic. Is he mad about Jack? Mad at his wife? Mad at America? No clue is given. The light touch has merit, but the trifecta of gentle-hued director Ang Lee, a secretive subject, and a stoic West equals a Mexican standoff of silence.
Lee’s masterful Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon contained some of the same themes of love paralyzed by duty. But unlike Dragon’s similarly tragic and ambiguous conclusion, Brokeback Mountain’s denouement feels flat rather than sublimely bittersweet. “I wish I knew how to quit you,” Jack moans at one point, frustrated that something he wants so badly to be perfect keeps slipping away from him. Jack, we understand completely.