A vitally important, visually stunning, socially conscious, emotionally wrenching love story, that I predict will win the Oscar for best picture of 2005.
The film Brokeback Mountain is very powerful. It’s supposed to be controversial, but all that was forgotten after the first five minutes. It’s one of the saddest and most tragic films I’ve seen recently, with the possible exception of Hotel Rwanda. But it’s such a different animal. The film started out innocuously. By the end, it packs an emotional wallop. It draws you in, to care about the characters in a way that is really uncommon. Particularly because both characters seem very earnest and very honest in their desires and drives. They are both likable, if flawed human beings. It doesn’t seem contrived at all.
One of my first observations is that the actors really pull it off, especially Heath Ledger. It took an act of tremendous courage for them to do so. For the most part, it has not been considered acceptable in the mainstream cinema for a leading-man type actor to play a gay character or have anything do with anything overtly gay. So for these two actors we’re not only talking about something that has to do with very personal courage, and being willing to deal with their own issues around conflicted sexuality (assuming that they are in fact straight), we’re talking about careers potentially at risk.
Paradoxically, I think the risk paid off. This film will do wonders for both their careers.
Brokeback Mountain is a metaphor for the love of the two characters as a force of nature. And it’s very important to be able to see any type of love between two people as magnetic and natural, whatever course it may ultimately take. All relationships exist on a continuum or spectrum somewhere between platonic love and erotic love. This is very similar to the Kinsey scale, where you have a continuum between gay and straight. (I think it would be helpful if society could recognize this, so that people don’t fear ruining their friendships over crossing such a line. And then they would understand that the natural feelings they have should not be accompanied with shame, but rather should be embraced and expressed. It is more important to take a risk than have safety in such a situation. Today’s social norms are decidedly against such risk-taking, but it’s a lesson a more mature society could learn to apply across the board.)
The two cowboys end up together in a tent, because it’s cold outside. Jack takes a tremendous risk. Men have been killed in the past for making a pass at another man. I think even hinting at it could get someone beat up in those times (probably today as well). Ennis jumps at the chance though, and the two go at each other with animalistic fervor. The suddenness of it jarred me in seeing the film, 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 himself, and his inability to express his feelings and communicate. And both as 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 in a very dramatic way. I was impressed with this, and also how well he kept trying to work things out between the two men. He was determined to have a life that would allow them both to experience more joy than what fate seemed to have in mind.
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 express himself well enough to even admit to his desires, only to kind of follow through with his duties. For the most part, he allowed life to get the better of him. Yet, he managed to be there for Jack, and be available for the one person who really mattered to him. It was not his daughters, it was not his wife. It was his lover and friend. And that was a powerful message.
Others have identified with the wives and daughters in the film. I can see their point, but these men did not belong in that society or with those women. It’s clear director Ang Lee deliberately set out to satirize the religious and redneck culture of Wyoming and Texas that was the backdrop for the story. The sweeping panoramic vistas that were a metaphor for the men’s feelings were in sharp contrast to the squalid physical and social environs that sought to keep those same feelings in check. So it was very hard for me to have any sympathy for anyone in that society, though I suppose such an argument could be made.
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 such 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 more powerful.
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 bisexual? What is the morality of a marriage where children are produced, yet the loyalty is elsewhere? Does this equation change if one of the parents is gay/bi? Can we effectively love more than one person at a time? Does lying constitute betrayal if it is out of loyalty to a greater purpose? What are the feelings we should value most in life? Is it better to have the safety of conformity, or to live large and take huge risks?
This is a film that deserves the hype. It could change the way many people feel about gay male relationships. But sadly, those who need to see it most probably won’t–or they will derive the opposite lesson as intended. Let’s just say that the ending is shocking and yet not surprising–but artfully crafted. A must-see.