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Wow – a gay movie that isn’t about homophobia, AIDS, society’s disapproval, religious objections, etc Brokeback Mountain is almost a gay movie that isn’t about being gay! But not quite. That does get in the way. What is so arresting about Annie Proulx’s story (and that which carries through quite well in the film) is the incidental nature of the gayness, the way the sexuality surfaces without warning and takes the viewer (and one of the new lovers) by total surprise. The ‘thing’ that these two Wyoming cowboys are dealing with, first and foremost, is their newfound love for each other. That’s it! This movie is about love, and how it can creep up on the most unsuspecting. And of course the sexuality that follows, which is committed to screen in a stinted but tender way.
Heath Ledger's Ennis Del Mar is completely, frighteningly sad, right from the start, the classic 'lost soul' who never knew love. You can see it in his eyes in the first scene, even from where you’re sitting in the theatre. I am sure someone named Oscar will notice. His calm and destructive intensity rarely falters throughout the rest of the film. The free spirit found in Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jack Twist happens upon him, and has the bravery to show him love, and it quite suddenly becomes sexual. It's an important film in that regard, since the outside world actually has not so much to do with the private and central relationship of the film, which isn’t defined as gay in relation to the normative surroundings. The surroundings here are the mountains and the sky, which are considerably less judgmental.
Those of you who’ve seen it are probably saying ‘What!? Of course it’s about homophobia – that’s what drives the whole film and brings about the outcome.’ But I would beg to differ. This story, set in the rural American outback of the early 60’s, takes place before homophobia. These characters, heartbreakingly, do not even have in their vocabulary ideas or words relating to ‘gay’, ‘lifestyle’, ‘homophobia’, etc... The extent to which they can verbally acknowledge how this might change their identity or future is by saying something along the lines of, “I ain’t queer.” It seems almost accidentally worse that these two men are so lost, so in-the-wrong-time-and-world, that the mere notion that they could be happy together is so beyond comprehension, theirs included. Let alone anyone else having a problem with it. They can’t ever get to that point. This is well before Matthew Shepard, and although similar incidents are touched upon, the fear of being an outcast (or getting hurt) is not what the film centers on. The only way they speak, discuss, and occasionally revel in each other is by cocooning themselves, far far away, in the empty and vast mountainscape where they first found each other.
For better or worse, these are some of the happy accidents in the film. The heartbreak that is suggested here, completely unbeknownst to the film itself, is far more shattering than what it tries to consciously represent. There are hidden implications here: the vital separation of civilization and wild nature is upheld beautifully, as a serene emblem of their love perhaps, but I found the pain therein – they can only be happy together in the goddamn woods, like a pair of escapees. This is undeniable when placed against the docile and standard courtships each partake in back ‘in town’ with the women destined to become their (unhappy) wives, scenes which, for me, were so much easier to watch, even if they were built on lies, than the raw and true scenes of love/tenderness between the two men (of which there are not enough).
But the sad, dooming affirmation that the film makes (this one might have been made on purpose): Love is a give and take, and that means that there is a giver and a taker. I think it’s because of this that the film actually did stay with me – as the men grow, their worlds change, and Jack Twist moves further and further in the direction of someone who knows himself, knows what he wants, away from the frozen and scared reaction of Ennis in the beginning. And what he wants is more of Ennis in his life. He is the only source of hope in the film, as he begins to gain that comprehension, the understanding of who he is and what that might mean. No wonder Ennis loves him – this is a beautiful dynamic which shows their love as one of respect and emotion rather than of pure desire or sex. But sadly, Ennis’s inability to follow suit, even when his own life begins to fall apart, reminds us of the powerlessness we occupy when it comes to dealing with that very dignified and real love. And that is not meant as poetic or necessarily positive even – it can be awful. I had this cloying, dangerous feeling eating away at me the whole time I was sitting there, and that is the small but obliterating idea that the film, in the end, puts forth; are we all just pawns in a love struggle that is so much bigger than us? Do we have any idea what we risk? Without giving anything away, the heartbreak that again might accidentally be suggested here is even more powerful – I wondered how much more awful it would have been if the two of them had been able to carry on like that into their 50s and 60s, hiding out in log cabins on secluded lakes.
But I was in a jubilant mood when I sat down to the film – don’t know why really. And the film’s ending didn’t succeed in bringing me down with its cookie-cutter lost love wrap-up and ‘lesson learned regretfully’. Much in the same way that Le Temps Qui Reste (the film reviewed prior to this) ambiguously tries to find a sure footing for its main character just before the end, Brokeback Mountainbegins to cram in a highly unbelievable subplot involving Ennis’s daughter (who is rather badly cast since she looks more like a girlfriend). After his experience with Jack Twist, can he finally learn to truly love, and thereby be loved? After the span of his relationship with this other man, trying to answer that question by way of the daughter, even suggestively, clearly does not suffice.
On a side note, Brokeback Mountain succeeds in expanding on the story on which it is based, without detracting from the mood of the work. Perhaps this is an easier feat than normal, since Brokeback Mountain is a short story, really just a sketch of a relationship that doesn’t concentrate on any outside ramifications that might arise. That is why it is refreshing to see the film spend some time with Michelle Williams, who plays a 60s down-home wife inexplicably jilted for a man. She is touching and tender in her role, which helps to balance the scales a bit.