According to Hollywood, the Western is dead. But every now and then a really successful one revives the genre: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969, Blazing Saddles in 1974, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven in 1992. Add to that list this year’s film festival darling, Brokeback Mountain.
The movie spans 20 years in the lives of cowboys, Ennis and Jack (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal), who meet herding sheep in Wyoming in the summer of 1963. They’re nice enough guys. They drink whiskey, complain about the boss, bathe buck-nekkid in the river and feel kinship in their isolation.
In these wide-open spaces, our Brokeback Mountain heroes suddenly start a prison-style romance, doing each other out of lust and loneliness. Being real cowboys, they don’t much discuss the sodomy except to say: “That was a one-shot deal,” “I ain’t queer” and “Me neither,” before going at it again. Reviving the old wrestling match between God and Eros, they indulge their horny instincts in defiance of that pesky code of the old west that says cowboys don’t ride other cowboys.
As part-time gays, they know the risks in he-man country. But hell, would you kick Heath or Jake outta your bedroll? As one says to the other: “I wish I knew how to quit you.” Instead they just deny it.
Over the next two decades they marry women, have kids and make out with each other every four years or so. Brokeback Mountain may be the first ever bi-curious date movie. It’s also the most sexually charged American movie this year.
In one scene, Ennis spends all day looking out the window for Jack while his wife keeps inquiring about this guy he “cowboyed” with one summer. When Jack finally shows up, he’s so excited his eyes are moist with anticipation. Their parking lot greeting turns into a heartbreaking glad-to-see-you-hug that’s as reckless and violent as a drunken fistfight. Nothing about this bracing, dangerous love story is obvious.
Certainly what makes Brokeback Mountain a hot potato is its subject matter, but its critical momentum comes from the pedigree of its filmmakers. A group as talented as the one behind this movie comes together less often than the planets line up.
Director Ang Lee won an Oscar for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and directed The Ice Storm and The Wedding Banquet. His movies are smart comedies of manners as well as disturbing bourgeois tragedies. Lee’s characters are always striving and failing to achieve an artificial ideal against elaborate, often suffocating, rules of behaviour.
Brokeback Mountain is based on a short story by Annie Proulx, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel, The Shipping News. The screenplay was co-written by Larry McMurtry, who has his own Pulitzer for the epic Western, Lonesome Dove. McMurtry also wrote Terms of Endearment and received an Oscar nomination for the screenplay of his novel, The Last Picture Show.
In front of the camera, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal fit the straight-acting, total-top, cowboy stereotype that we immediately recognize from movie Westerns and Internet chat rooms. This makes their transformation from straight cowboys to bisexual cowpokes feel completely legit. Even better, they’re just as convincing when they’re full of youthful exuberance at the movie’s beginning as they are by the end when they’re full of tamed blood and sprouting pubic hair that’s as silvery as Christmas tree tinsel.
Gyllenhaal, with his goofy grin and eyebrows that pop up with every dirty thought, is the perfect little-kid cowboy. When he wishes aloud for “a sweet life” with Ennis in Mexico instead of just some “high-altitude fucks,” you want more for him, too.
Ledger, with his perfectly shaped mannequin head, pin-dot eyes and choked line delivery is internalized homophobia personified.
He’s so macho, closeted and self-loathing that the only gay he bashes is himself. “If you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it,” he tells Jack. But when his face crumbles in relief after they’ve been together, he’s more than an actor just going through the motions. You can feel how enormously grateful Ennis is for this little bit of unexpected passion and romance in his life. If Heath Ledger doesn’t win an Oscar for this performance, they should stop giving out the awards.
That Brokeback Mountain is a quiet, intimate picture makes sense. Reflecting the risk they take at the box office, gay-themed movies have always been low-budget affairs. Mainstream ones are usually adaptations of successful Broadway plays like The Boys in the Band, Torch Song Trilogy, and Love! Valour! Compassion! Gay characters in major movies are most often sidekicks. It’s no accident that Rupert Everett gets invited to the reception but not the ceremony, in My Best Friend’s Wedding.
After a movie is made, it takes a long time for the dice to stop rolling, but Brokeback Mountain has already expanded the vocabulary of film. This is more than a Thelma & Louise for Tom and Louis. This is an engrossing mainstream movie about a romance between lead characters who just happen to fall for each other.
Brokeback Mountain is ultimately about the Western masculine values of faultless protector heroes in an age where discrimination is the law of the land and gaybashers run free. It gives queer culture a presence in an American movie genre that’s as mythical as Homer’s Greece.