It is difficult to get past the indescribably stunning beauty that is Brokeback Mountain, from the rugged earthbound forests and hills to the naked, nuanced performances of the actors. Perhaps this has hypnotized moviegoers into thinking that Brokeback is a romantic love story, which could not be further from truth. Brokeback Mountain is a film about circumstances and choices, simply, and the repercussions of those choices. In the case of fictional cowboys Ennis and Jack, those choices lead to sadness and despair, and we're left to wrench our hearts in their misery.
I can forgive Ang Lee, because of his ability to capture such magnificence on film, the incredible (as in not believable) setup for the love affair between Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist. The story throws the two together in Wyoming sheepherding country, as they earn their keep one summer roughing it on the side of the mountain called Brokeback. Although they grow closer through the hardships of extreme weather, lack of sleep and lost sheep, their friendship never hints at anything beyond platonic before their fumbling tent encounter. It is inexplicable that Ennis, an engaged self-proclaimed virgin, would so quickly lube himself with saliva and press himself into a man's backdoor. Yet this single act does propel the rest of the film, a plausible love affair between two men who are desperate to hold on, to their lives and each other at the same time.
After their summer of awakening ends, it is years before they reconnect as lovers. Each has started a family; for Jack, this means the fast track to success, but Ennis cannot seem to raise his life above the poverty level. His wife spies on their passionate reunion, thus beginning a spiral of jealousy and hatred that ultimately leads to their divorce. Without even a word, Alma Del Mar makes a living Hell for herself and her family. Over the years, Lureen Twist wraps herself into the family business, blinding herself to whatever truth may be hiding in her husband's past and present fishing trips up north with his buddy. Jack is the sole character who sees his life for what it is; although he's made himself into a successful family man, he'd give it all up for Ennis.
The tragedy of Ennis is that he had no idea where he came from and never stops to wonder where he's going. His issues are deep, as he works odd jobs, gets into fights and makes bad judgment calls again and again in his life. He is utterly terrified by the possibility that he'll be found out as a homosexual, yet he is unwilling to give up Jack and their Brokeback affair. Ennis eventually blames Jack for everything that has gone wrong with his life, and instantly hates himself as he makes the declaration for heaping a lifetime worth of failures onto the only person who ever made him feel love.
Jake Gyllenhaal is instantly likeable as Jack, probably the least infuriating character of the lot. Heath Ledger demonstrates a deepening of range in his choice to play Ennis as mumbling and stoic. As the wives, Anne Hathaway and especially Michelle Williams give us true insight into characters both frustrated and frustrating.
Ultimately, we're left to decide how to feel for Jack and Ennis, scared to do what makes them happy, scared of what might happen if they don't. Even taking into account the era and culture of the film, though, it's difficult to feel anything but pity for them, Ennis especially. Death is less frightening than living a hollow, unsatisfying life. Perhaps that is why Brokeback Mountain saddened me so; deep down he knows this, yet he doesn't know how to escape it.
©2006, Robert A. Geise - May not be reprinted without express permission. Hot-linking welcome.
Postscript: Something I don't say in the review: the music is beautiful as well. The original compositions are perfect, as are the chosen songs. Nothing is out of place, unlike some soundtracks. I suppose that's an advantage of non-commercial films; associated record labels don't get to insert their product into soundtracks.