DP and I went to see Brokeback Mountain this weekend with a group of friends. I had read the short story when it was published in The New Yorker and had thought it amazing—an incredible moving story, and amazing that a mainstream magazine had published it. So I really wanted to see how well it had transplanted to the screen. I had some confidence in Larry McMurtry, one of the screenwriters, but I was still uncertain. And the reviews were so mixed—some praising it, others seemingly so caught up in homophobia that the movie became unwatchable (for them). So I knew I wanted to see this for myself.
It was, in a word, stunning.
First, a brief plot summary in case you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t heard. Two down-on-their-luck ranchers are hired to watch a herd of sheep summering on US Forest Service land in the Montana mountains in the early 1960s. They fall in love, much against their conditioning, and begin a relationship. After the summer is over, they go their separate ways—Ennis to marry Alma, and Jack to go back to bull-riding in the rodeo, where he meets and marries the daughter of a wealthy farm machinery dealer. Six years later Jack contacts Ennis. They go off “fishing” together, and find that their connection is as strong as it was that summer six years ago. For the next twenty years, they “go fishing” or “elk hunting” several times. And always, they come to the same conclusion—this is all they can have, these furtive meetings at long intervals. They are married, they fear the opprobrium of society if they buy a ranch together (Jack’s dream). In the end, all Ennis has is his memories and the view of Brokeback Mountain.
The simplest first—the scenery (which I think was Alberta—Canada once again standing in for the US West) was incredible—starkly beautiful, huge and open. The cinematography let you take it in, let it become part of the story, as in fact Brokeback Mountain is, without letting the mountains and sky take over.
Then there’s the acting. One of the things I appreciated about Annie Proulx’s story was that she showed everybody’s pain—not just Jack and Ennis’s pain, but that of the wives and the children. It wasn’t simply a matter of “poor Ennis and Jack, in love and unable to show it,” which is tragedy enough. Proulx also showed the pain of Alma—who loved Ennis but knew he could never love her, and that he had a side to him that she found repugnant and she could not accept. We see that pain—Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllanhaal did a wonderful job of that. And their love scenes are equally well-done. I have read in a couple of interviews with Mr. Ledger that they did not rehearse those scenes, plan them out—“OK, Jack does this, and then Ennis does that.” They simply let them flow. It says a great deal for these two (straight) actors that they were able to infuse these scenes with the tenderness and love they called for without squeamishness or calling for body doubles or planning them to the point of vapidity. And one of the scenes is pretty graphic, by the way—you are left in no doubt that this relationship has a physical component to it!
Heath Ledger is especially amazing. Ennis is a man of few words, so Ledger can’t use his speeches to convey Ennis’s character. When Ennis does speak, you learn about him—but you learn as much or more when he is silent—from the way he touches a shirt, or eats his pie, or carefully stubs out a cigarette for future reuse. This is brilliant.
The audience surprised me, too. I hadn’t thought there would be much of a crowd, even in Canada, even for a movie with a lot of hype, even for a Heath Ledger movie, when it was about a pair of gay cowboys. I was wrong. Not only was the theatre full, the audience was totally sympathetic. There were no disgusted moans at Jack and Ennis’s first kiss, and there was total silence during their first sexual encounter. The only loud reactions came at junctures when you would expect them—when Alma witnesses Jack and Ennis’s reunion kiss, unseen by the men; at the gruesome shot of a disembowelled sheep (done by a coyote); and so on. There was a real sympathy for Ennis and Jack.
Most of all, I think, I was stunned by the way in which the story was told. It wasn’t played sentimentally, or luridly, or histrionically, or leeringly. Ang Lee simply gave us a narration and let us draw our own conclusions.
In a more perfect world, there would be no homophobia, internalized or otherwise. If Jack and Ennis had felt from the beginning that they could share their lives, live together, be a couple, the pain of many of those around them would have been much less. As a result, Ennis and Alma would not have married, they would not have suffered the pain that they did. Jack and his wife also would not have gone through what they did. There would not have been the secretiveness, the hiding, the deception that, in the end, couldn’t last.
My hope is that straight people who see this movie will glean an understanding of the damage homophobia wreaks on real lives, in the small everyday things as well as the larger, life-altering ways. I hope, too, that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people who see it will understand how far we have come in many ways, and how far we still have to go. There are places in the world, in the US, where things have not changed much from the way they're shown in 1960s Montana. There are places where society is very different. Let us be glad for the changes, and work for continued change.