Brokeback Mountain

Ladymol's Review

Cerisaye and I are feeling somewhat smug (never a good thing) because we reviewed Annie Proulx’s short story Brokeback Mountain over two years ago when almost no one had heard of it. I think we’re both glad that we discovered this gem of a story before it became so popular with the making of the movie.

I was doubtful they could pull off making a movie of this story, because the story was told more by what wasn’t said than by what was. I was wrong. With the right actors conveying the painful suppression of emotion, the film works brilliantly. You don’t need me to tell you that this is a great movie, buy it rather than just rent, and watch and watch again.

Given that, there are some things that niggle me about the film.

The movie is more upbeat and positive than the story. Firstly, the boys are so pretty that some of the desperate harshness of Ennis and Jack’s life is smoothed over by their representations. Neither Heath Ledger nor Jake Gyllenhaal looks as if they’ve come up living hard lives on farms. They don’t have the physical imperfections that Annie Proulx is at pains to describe for her characters. It’s hard to believe that Ennis-Heath wouldn’t move on from Jack’s death, whereas the sad little man in the book seems more trapped by his time and place. For some reason, the screenwriters chose to put in a final scene with Ennis and his daughter, which gives us some hope that Ennis had learnt by his mistakes with Jack and that he might be able to move on. This scene doesn’t exist in the book, and it’s much clearer in the original story that Ennis isn’t going anywhere: he’s trapped with his dreams of Jack and two shirts hanging in a closet on a flat plain of nothingness. Perhaps cinema-going audiences weren’t quite ready for a tragic love story without some hope of redemption.

One of the other major differences that irks me somewhat is the lack of intimacy between Ennis and Jack in the film compared with in the book—and I don’t mean gay sex. They meet two or three times a year and… ride around…? In the book, Proulx manages to convey the passion of this relationship without once going into detail—as soon as they stop riding, they are desperate to touch each other, unbuttoning each other’s pants even while they catch up on family news. I’m not entirely convinced that the way the relationship is conveyed in the film sells you on the premise of Jack being held hostage to this situation for twenty years. More could have been included without treading on the sensibilities of straight audiences. I think it was lost to the vastly increased roles of the women: Alma and Lureen. Again, I feel this was done as an underhand way of selling this “gay cowboy” (I hate that term as they were neither gay nor cowboys) to straight audiences. We got a gratuitous shot of Ann Hatherway’s breasts, a fairly lengthy sequence of Ennis and Alma in bed, but Ennis and Jack are shot either in total darkness or in such close up that not an inch of their bodies is shown or, indeed, at a vast distance through the lens of binoculars (it’s left so unclear what is happening in this scene there’s a whole forum devoted to why Ennis appears to have mud on his knees).  Again, I’m not being prurient. I have oddles of gay porn to watch if I want. I want the intimacy and fun and pure male physical joy that Ennis and Jack find together to be brought onto the screen to sell the story. I love the way Annie Proulx describes the motel scene: jouncing the bed, lying wet and spent. The film manages to de-sex the relationship, as if the physicality of cum and sweat and shit might damage the elemental message the director is trying to convey. I don’t think Annie was going for elemental: she saw the magic in the mundane. And just a tiny point which tends to support my theory—Lee chose to set the relationship over twenty years on Brokeback mountain, whereas in Annie’s original story, they make a point of never returning to Brokeback after that first summer (ie, Lee was going for the premise that this story is elemental and applies whether you are gay or straight, whereas in the book I think Annie was much clearer that this relationship was based on physical desire). These might all be very minor gripes, but it does rankle with me that for this first major Hollywood film about two men who prefer having sex with each other than anyone else, the sex is mostly absent.

You really can’t discuss this film without discussing its impact on those who have seen it. Visit Dave Cullen’s amazing Brokeback forum and find threads where thousands of people tell their own stories of their Brokeback lives, taking courage from Ennis and Jack’s experience to put their lives in perspective. There are also fascinating threads exploring the imagery of the film.

Cerisaye's Review

I was afraid this film was going to be an anti-climax because I expected so much. That I’d read too many reviews, interviews, articles, been immersed too deeply in the buzz of anticipation and subsequent reaction to its release for the reality of a simple movie to be anything other than a disappointment.

I really didn’t need to worry.

 It’s one of the best films I have ever seen. One of the saddest too.

From the opening sequence, with those plaintive guitar chords, tears pricked my eyes. I was emotionally raw, sniffling quietly into my hanky, yet equally captivated by the brilliant imagining of a story that’s been close to my (broken) heart since I first read Proulx’ simple yet stunning novella. Ang Lee’s film has stark simplicity similar to the source, rendering visuals equal to the stripped-down prose of the original.

It’s been a long road to get here, surreptitiously blubbing on a cold station platform bench while frantically scribbling notes to preserve my first reaction for later transcription. When I heard about the casting I scoffed: how could two straight pretty boy actors possibly be MY Ennis & Jack? This early scepticism was quickly squashed when I saw the trailer and began reading interviews with Heath & Jake. But oh how very wrong I was ever to question their abilities! Talk of Oscar nominations does not exaggerate, if there’s ANY justice in the world. Nothing can prepare you for seeing them inhabit the skins of Ennis & Jack. They ARE the characters. I’d read the hype attached to Heath’s performance, but Jake’s is equal to it, if less obvious.

It’s not what’s said that matters- though Heath Ledger’s way of talking is perfectly pitched to get to the core of Ennis Del Mar; it’s all in their looks, body language, silences. A roller coaster of emotional peaks & troughs, one of the most moving love stories of our times. Devastating isn’t too strong a word. And that comes from someone very familiar with the story. I can’t imagine what it must be like to come to it unknowing.

For uncomfortable swathes of screentime there’s neither music nor dialogue to distract, only the relentless wind that haunts the film and wordless emotions of two men caught by a passion they don’t understand and certainly can’t articulate, except to negate what they feel by denying outright they’re ‘queer’- though the way Jake Gyllenhaal says it so quick you know he only echoes Ennis because it’s expected but he's not at all sure it's not true.

What we see develop transcends labels, though no one with a heart could possibly come away uncertain the ties that bind men together are as enduring as hetero relationships. Up there in glorious Technicolor. A story that elates as two lonely men connect, and drags you to the depths of despair when they part and stay that way, then rouses bitter anger at the futility of making do, allowing the love of a lifetime to slip away out of fear and misguided pursuit of an unrealisable dream of safe conformity. A life not lived but endured, a straightjacket imposed by society’s denial of gay love which inhibits personal freedom by making men think they are wrong for feeling as they do.

Bits taken from the novella, well remembered scenes and word-for-word dialogue, mesh seamlessly with new material, opened-out sequences beyond the Brokeback Mountain idyll that’s the most amazing part of the film: long stretches of time between 'fishing trips' showing the horrible impact on both men and their wives & families of trying to live a lie, how everyone gets hurt, victims of Ennis’ inability to admit even to himself what it is he really wants- and Jack’s reluctance to force the issue- the paralysis of fear stemming from childhood trauma, forced to witness the terrible fate that awaits men who dare to share their lives like husband & wife.

While the novella is told from Ennis’ POV, the film adaptation ups the pain by forcing upfront consideration of aspects Proulx covers in a few lines: Ennis’ experience of marriage and pressures of family life and low-paid employment; Jake’s acceptance of necessity, taking a wife and financial security, and his slow visible deterioration as absence of love...of Ennis his heart’s desire...destroys him. The film draws out the novella most satisfactorily and gives secondary characters room denied by its brevity. Alma and Lureen win sympathy for the unfairness of the situation, no fault of theirs, particularly Ennis’ wife, beautifully played by Michelle Williams, confronted with this thing between her husband and his 'fishing buddy', unable to comprehend what it means; the way Ennis despite it all retains the love of elder daughter Alma Junior, their relationship nicely developed to show it wasn’t all negative, and give hope he won’t be left entirely alone.

People have said the pace is too slow, that the story drags, but for me it went by too quickly. There isn’t a wasted shot. Supporting performances are uniformly excellent. I particularly liked Jack’s mother who conveys so much with her brief appearance, settling in my mind that she knows and gives Ennis her blessing, thanks for giving her son whatever happiness he had. Likewise Jack’s father, hating the interloper who comes to remind him of a son he never understood and denied approval or love.

I can’t find fault with the film (okay the ageing make-up isn't the most convincing I've seen but that's a quibble), not a thing I’d change. I’m numb, suffused with sadness, a hurt that lies like sickness in my stomach. I can’t think about it without starting to cry. I want to see it again. This first time was all about the feelings, raw emotional reactions, an overwhelming power so I just couldn’t take it all in. I know I missed details. I was surprised too how much humour was in there, despite the pain and suffering.

What I don’t understand is why so many (straight male?) reviewers have focused on the sex, such a small part and tastefully done, so you see almost nothing but know everything. The violence of the first-time shocks but feels right because you see how what happens is the culmination of weeks’ building sexual tension- Jack’s unspoken longing, subtly played by Jake Gyllenhaal, matched by Ennis’ drunkenly uninhibited need. Sex is easy, like the boyish wrestling games they play on the mountain. What’s much more difficult to show is the unforced intimacy and affection of lovers, which Heath & Jake carry off beautifully.

Their chemistry is incredible, a perfect match. All those questions to Heath & Jake about how hard it is to play gay ignore how well the actors convey the characters’ passion, confusion, unspeakable need. They grunt and groan and huff like rutting beasts the first time in the tent (the only coupling shown). Thereafter we see them entwined, intimate, quiet and tender, isolated in their cocoon of love, playful in the great outdoors far from judgmental eyes.

Heath Ledger is everything you’ve read about, speaking in that closed-lip way as though words hurt to speak (taciturn isn’t adequate). With hat pulled down, eyes hidden or averted or darting like a startled deer, he’s emotionally self-contained as the island in the sea conjured by his name. It’s a joy to behold Ennis bloom as Brokeback Mountain works its spell. Then the years take toll, a half-life of lost content sustained by infrequent rekindling of passion’s fire, the rest of the time a tight-wound coil quick to temper and violence.

Then there’s Jake, and Jack’s ebullient, confident, macho rodeo cowboy swagger, checking out Ennis the moment he sets eyes on him at Joe Aguirre’s trailer, so vibrant, free and easy. Gradually worn down by a life circumscribed by Ennis’ fear, selling out for an easier life in Texas but, unlike Ennis, unable to make do without what he needs, even if it comes without love. By their final scene together, Jack just isn’t the same man.

I’m so glad I saw this film on the big screen. The cinematography is stunning. Beautiful painterly images on Brokeback and the high country of their 'fishing trips' contrast with the hemmed in existence Ennis & Jake endure apart, the ugly reality of homophobia against the wide open spaces, a place of freedom where society’s disapprobation has no remit, where their love and its expression is something natural and uninhibited.

I saw the film with a mixed audience in a city centre independent theatre. We were all very quiet, except for conspicuous sniffs and snuffles, sitting rapt in this saddest of all love stories in which the word love is never mentioned at all.

The most affecting scene? Same as the book...the shirts.