Ang Lee's Cowboy Angst
Director Ang Lee is well known for his careful reworking of literary works, so was the perfect choice to helm "Brokeback Mountain" an adaptation of Annie Proulx's short story. The outcome is a somewhat emotional and controversial movie that whilst short on dialogue is packed full of atmosphere and depth. But a mass of dialogue isn't really necessary in "Brokeback Mountain" where a solitary glance can express so much more emotion than a hundred words.
In 1963, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger - Ned Kelly) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal - The Day After Tomorrow) find work as ranchers tending a flock of sheep in the wide expanses of the Wyoming Mountains. During the long lonely months on the mountains, an unexpected relationship starts to arise, one which simmers beneath the surface until one night when it manifests itself in a passionate and brutal encounter. When their time on the mountain comes to an end, they part ways, only to realize that their feelings for each other are stronger than they realised. But constrained by social expectations they are forced to hide their true feelings and live a lie.
Considering "Brokeback Mountain" comes in at over 2 hours the Larry McMurtry screenplay is unexpectedly thin when it comes to dialogue. However, though the movie extends to a period of over twenty years, it, in many ways, relies on showing us episodes from each of the men's lives. So we learn how Ennis and Jack meet, how they ended up in a forbidden love affair and how they try to restrain their feelings for one another in an attempt to fit into societies preferred stereotypes. So each ends up getting married and starting families, but it is always plain to see that living a lie makes them both discontented and that their unhappiness affects their family lives. We don't actually get to see that much of their wives, but what little we do see shows how each of them deals with the issues in their marriage either by overcompensating or by ignoring them.
What is very noticeable is that the screenplay also highlights the fear that both men share as to what will happen if they openly display their affections for each other in public. Although it is pretty clear that Jack and Ennis would probably be happy together you know that the society they live in would never accept them for doing so. The actually beauty of the screenplay is that because it is short on dialogue there are no over the top, fake pronouncements of affection preferring to tell the story through real emotions such as a glance, a touch or more importantly a silence. As well as the storyline covering the fear of these two men it also comes across in many ways as a traditional romantic tragedy where despite knowing that Jack and Ennis are soul mates the world stops them from being together.
The relationship between Jack and Ennis is understandably complex, as neither wants to openly show their feelings for each other too soon. But the tension between them grows until it becomes overpowering and what follows is a series of homo-erotic scenes which become both more suggestive and visual as time goes on. At times the graphical sexual nature of these scenes is unsettling often bordering on the brutal but it tells a story of how they feel about their surprising feelings. I will admit that I found watching these scenes hard not only because of the homo-erotic nature but because they are shocking in their intensity.
On the subject of the homo-erotic nature of "Brokeback Mountain" and the huge amount of controversy over it when released. Well yes it is a difficult subject for a movie to tackle but the underlying story of love and fear is so powerful that even if you are opposed to homosexuality it is a worthy movie to watch for the fact it covers the subject of forbidden love and social expectations in such a way that it surpasses those initial boundaries.
Performance wise well the late Heath Ledger demonstrates that not only was he one of the most talented actors from his generation but also that he could deliver performances that were beautiful in their simplicity yet had such an impact. His portrayal of Ennis a man who struggles dealing with his inner most feelings to the extent that there is a feeling of self loathing is wonderful to watch. Without the need to utter cheap dialogue Ledger displays through his actions, the way he feels be it through the silent moodiness, the gentleness towards others or the occasional explosion of temper it is a highly visual performance which delivers more without words than with.
Opposite Ledger is Jake Gyllenhaal who has a slightly easier task as Jack due to his more open attitude to his homosexual feelings. Unlike Ennis who is struggling to come to terms with his feelings, Jack has accepted how he feels and wants to be able to demonstrate them freely although realises that the need to conform to social attitudes is necessary. Honestly, Gyllenhaal does a very good job of making us empathise with how he feels towards Ennis and his frustrations of having to hide them, but he is seriously over shadowed by the powerful performance from Heath Ledger.
As already mentioned Jack and Ennis's wives get little screen time, but both Michelle Williams as Alma and Anne Hathaway as Lureen do effective jobs of playing against type to deliver restrained performances in fitting with the feel of the movie. Both add atmosphere to the story and help demonstrate how the unhappiness that Both Ennis and Jack feel affects the family life.
What this all boils down to is that despite all the controversy over its homosexual storyline "Brokeback Mountain" is a truly stunning movie due to Ang Lee's tender adaptation of Annie Proulx's story. Some will find that getting past the homo-erotic nature of the movie to be too bigger task but for those who achieve this will discover a wonderful story which is beautifully acted by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal and not as some people describe 'a Gay Cowboy Move'.