A vitally important, visually stunning, socially conscious, emotionally wrenching love story, that I predict will win the Oscar for best picture of 2005.
Brokeback Mountain is a sweeping and powerful film. It pulled me right in. I forgot all the stigma of controversy after the first five minutes. It’s also one of the most tragic films in recent memory–with the possible exception of Hotel Rwanda. But it’s such a different genre, and sad for very different reasons. It draws you in, to care about gay characters in a way that heterosexual audiences aren’t used to. Particularly because both characters communicate the honesty of their desires. They are both likable, if flawed human beings, and their love story doesn’t seem forced. It builds organically to an emotional wallop.
It can’t have been easy for two straight actors to pull off these roles. And it was unacceptable in mainstream cinema for A-list leading-men to play gay characters. So we’re not only talking about the actors’ own conflicts around sexuality. Playing these roles would have put their careers at risk. But that’s all changing–in no small part because of this film.
It’s very important to be able to see love between any two people as a force of nature, whatever course it may take. All relationships exist on a spectrum somewhere between platonic love and erotic love, just as the Kinsey scale defines a continuum between gay and straight attraction. Recognizing this ambiguity could help save friendships which might be threatened over crossing such a line. Love always requires risk. Modern social norms for men are rigidly against any such risk-taking, and that’s a source of widespread pain.
The two cowboys end up together in a tent, because, baby it’s cold outside. Men have killed other men over what Jack did next. Even hinting at those kind of feelings could have led to violence. Ennis jumps at the chance, and the two go at each other with animalistic fervor. The suddenness of it jarred me, but it was appropriate given the fact that the characters were also taken by surprise.
There were two battles being fought in Brokeback Mountain. The first was the battle of the two men against convention and society. The second was the battle of Ennis, Heath Ledger’s character, with his inability to express his feelings. Both battles were equally real. I identified more with Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, because I felt that he was somebody who took some action, and he kept his life reasonably well on track. Though he had his own difficulties, he eventually stood up to his overbearing father-in-law. I was impressed with how well he kept trying to work things out between the two men. He desperately wanted a life that would allow them both to experience more joy than what fate had in store.
Jack was the one who could see the reality of the possibility of his dream, whereas Ennis could only see far enough ahead to barely get by. He couldn’t even admit to his desires, and he was duty-bound. This allowed life to get the better of him. Yet, he managed to be there for Jack, the one person who really mattered to him. It wasn’t his daughters, it wasn’t his wife. It was his lover and friend who was his True North. And that’s the real kick in the teeth to so-called American ‘family values.’
Jack and Ennis didn’t belong in that society–or with those women. It’s duty vs. passion. Director Ang Lee deliberately set out to satirize the religious and redneck culture of Wyoming and Texas that were the backdrop for the story. The expansive vistas that mirrored the men’s feelings were in sharp contrast to the squalid physical and social environs that sought to keep their feelings in check.
Typical was the scene in which Heath Ledger’s character Ennis gets married, shortly after the two men meet. At the conclusion of the ceremony, the minister looks over at the bride, and then to Ennis and and says “you may kiss the bride… or I will.” Another norm-busting scene occurs at a Fourth of July celebration. Two drunk rednecks are harassing Ennis, who is there with his family. He confronts the men, and knocks the shit out of them. But the tableau is almost beyond belief: All-American fireworks in the background, a mortified wife with two screaming kids (one on each hip), while an out-of-control Ennis (who doesn’t belong there), takes out his frustrations on two even less fortunate souls. The irony couldn’t be stronger.
The film spans 20 years of the two men’s lives. It asks a lot of familiar but still important questions: What does it mean to be a bisexual parent? What happens when you have children, but your spouse is the wrong gender to meet your needs? Straight people have struggled and failed at marital fidelity since the beginning of time. Can people love more than one person at a time? Does lying constitute betrayal if it is for a greater purpose? What should we value most in life? Is it better to have the safety of conformity, or to take huge risks?
These are much more substantive issues, than any controversy over sexuality.
Brokeback Mountain deserves all the hype. It could change the way many people feel about male same-sex relationships. The people who need to see it most probably won’t–or they will reject love as a force of nature, and derive the opposite lesson as intended. The ending is shocking if not surprising. Artfully crafted and a must-see.