Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack Twist
Heath Ledger as Ennis Del Mar
Michelle Williams as Alma Beers Del Mar
Anne Hathaway as Lureen Newsome Twist
Randy Quaid as Joe Aguirre
Linda Cardellini as Cassie Cartwright
Anna Faris as LaShawn Malone
Scott Michael Campbell as Monroe
Kate Mara as Alma Del Mar Jr.
Cheyenne Hill as Alma Del Mar Jr. (age 13)
Brooklynn Proulx as Jenny Del Mar (age 4)
Tom Carey as Jimbo the Rodeo Clown
“Brokeback Mountain” is as unconventional a love story as it is a tale of the West, but Ang Lee pulls the diverse pieces together to create a gorgeous film, as romantic for its scenery as it is for the central relationship.
Two ranch hands, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), spend the summer of ’63 wrangling sheep on Wyoming’s Brokeback Mountain, only to discover that they have feelings for each other that won’t go away after the summer ends. Over the course of two decades, the two men meet for fishing trips to explore their secret love affair, leaving their unsuspecting wives at home.
If you’re a straight male–it almost feels necessary to out one’s own sexuality before commenting on this film–there are a few things you need to get your head around before watching Ang Lee’s adaptation of Annie Proulx’s New Yorker story. In some ways, it’s even better not knowing the film’s premise and seeing it as if it were a high plains love tale. Some guys might feel uncomfortable watching the movie once they realize it’s a love story between two men, but there are as many concerns of being labeled a homophobe if you outright hate it. Fortunately, it’s a great movie and any mixed feelings one might have of seeing it, let alone talking about it, gives an instant empathy with the film’s dual protagonists, who have to hide their feelings for each other, knowing that revealing them could very well get themselves killed. That dichotomy is only part of what makes this stirring love story set in the modern American West so powerful and memorable.
The film starts in almost complete silence panning across the vast plains of Wyoming–actually Alberta, Canada–which played a similar role in Lasse Hallström’s recent character drama “An Unfinished Life.” Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist are two ranch hands, who’ve been hired to keep an eye on thousands of grazing sheep, but the two men are very different–Jack Twist is lively and excitable, while Ennis barely talks, usually mumbling something in a gruff manner. A cold night, a bit of alcohol and the proverbial one thing leading to another and they have a sexual encounter that neither ever expected. If you’re not expecting it, you’re likely to be taken aback by how violent their initial tryst is, Ledger breaking “new ground” in a way that makes you think he’s had a few sheep in his time. At an early age, Ennis’ father taught him a hard lesson about what happens to homosexuals in the West, so he considers this a one-time thing. While Jack is just as tentative, the feelings are real to him, and he’s ready to explore them.
After their summer job ends, they go their separate ways and resume their lives, Ennis getting married and quickly having kids and Jack returning to the rodeo. Four years later, they get back in touch, and are immediately ready to revive their summer relationship. “Going fishing on Brokeback Mountain” becomes a euphemism for their secret affair, as they leave their wives behind for weeks at a time. By this point, Jack is ready to leave his wife and be with Ennis, but the latter has far too many genetically programmed apprehensions to allow his true feelings to take over.
Adeptly adapted by Larry McMurtry, the Pulitzer Prize winning writer of “Lonesome Dove,” and his writing partner Dianna Ossana, this is a beautifully written piece that remains true to everything we know about the Midwest, with believable dialogue that never falters. It wouldn’t do justice to summarize the film scene by scene, but it does cover a lot of ground, almost two decades, so that we can see how the relationship between the two men evolves, just as the relationships around them start to fall apart.
Some might have difficulty getting past the fact that there are two leading men in this romantic drama, but there’s certainly something appealing about this impossible love story, even if it’s just watching two Marlboro Men having a lover’s spat, which is not something you see every day. Heath Ledger spends much of the film channeling Billy Bob Thornton’s accent from “Sling Blade”, and it takes some time to get used to his mumbling, even though it perfectly captures Ennis’ subdued demeanor. Ledger has many emotional scenes where we see him trying to come to terms with his feelings for Jack, while also keeping it under wraps, and the scenes between the two actors are extremely powerful, mainly because we rarely have seen these words or emotions expressed in such a direct manner on film before. Sure, there is a bit of homoeroticism in the first act, but once they’re reunited four years later, that’s put on the backburner.
The film’s even stronger thanks to a number of strong supporting female roles, most notably from Michelle Williams–Ledger’s real life girlfriend–as Ennis’ embittered wife, who secretly learns about the affair and has to keep it hidden from her husband. “The Princess Diaries” star Anne Hathaway has a breakout role as Jack Twist’s wife Lureen, the cowgirl daughter of a farm equipment magnate who never approves of his new son-in-law. She’s allowed to show a bit more range than normal, although it’s not believable that she’s aged almost 20 years from the moment we meet her until her last scene. Kate Mara also gives a nice performance as Ennis’ elder daughter, and you probably won’t recognize Anna Farris with her exaggerated accent during a brief cameo.
There’s no denying that this is another masterpiece for Ang Lee in terms of the look and tone of the piece. Like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” he’s created another stunning piece of cinema with a strong sense of time and place, but it’s far more complex in its emotions than it is for the characters or story. Lee uses all of the resources at his disposal to create a realistic portrait of the modern West, using panoramic shots of the mountains and forests and lakes accompanied by a score that uses a simple recurring theme to perfect effect. Wisely, Lee knows when to shut off the music altogether, to let the dialogue and emotions drive the story, which makes it that much more moving when the main theme returns for the closing credits. It’s simple things like that, which makes this such a wonderful piece of work.
The Bottom Line:
Though it may be hard to believe, this beautiful tale of two men falling in love in a time and place where their relationship could never work may be the most romantic film of the year. Regardless of your sexuality, you’re likely to be moved by the powerful emotional resonance in Ang Lee’s beautifully realized masterpiece.
Brokeback Mountain opens in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco on Friday, and elsewhere on December 16.