Brokeback Mountain
©  2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS. IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE FILM
OR READ THE SHORT STORY ON WHICH IT IS BASED, READ AT YOUR
OWN RISK!


  One thing that has been bugging me all year is the treatment of films
made by and targeted to the gay audience by the "mainstream,” mostly
heterosexual critical establishment. It’s been more than clear to me that
these men and women just don’t “get” films which contain a fair share of
gay sensibility. More often than not, queer-themed movies are dismissed or
worse, openly attacked. If the movie contains any sort of sexual situation,
often these writers will invoke comparisons to pornography. Yet if a
heterosexual sex scene is included – indeed if it’s only a matter of a man
and woman kissing versus, say two men or two women – these films are not
held to the same standards.

  Well now many of those same reviewers are falling over themselves
to embrace
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, which has been dubbed “the gay
cowboy movie” by the less-than-enlightened press. The movie centers on
a relationship between two men spread over a period of twenty or so years.
These writers are falling over themselves to show they are not homophobic
or prejudiced by showering director Ang Lee with congratulatory praise for
handling material considered “controversial” while also praising the
“bravery” of lead actors Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal for undertaking
roles which might damage their careers. Because any actor playing a role
must be forever tagged with that part, right? I mean, we all know that
Anthony Hopkins must be a crazed cannibalistic serial killer since he
did that role so well in
THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Of course, that’s
why the kudos are pouring in: all the better to capture an Academy Award,
the highest form of congratulations in Hollywood.

     BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN began as a short story by Pulitzer Prize winner
E. Annie Proulx that was published in the October 13, 1997 issue of
The New Yorker. I recall a co-worker who was quite excited when the news
of a film version of the story was first bandied about some five years ago,
and he passed along a copy of the story to me. I recall finding it intriguing
and an pleasant read, but hardly memorable. Over the years, the
screenplay written by Larry McMurtry and his companion Diana Ossana
languished in development hell. Finally, Ang Lee undertook the project at
the urging of his longtime collaborator and co-president of Focus Features,
James Schamus. The result is a finely crafted film with gorgeous scenery
shot by Rodrigo Prieto and several strong performances, but one that still
struck me as hollow.

  Perhaps it’s a generational thing, perhaps it’s merely my own skewed
take on the world, but the completed film of
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN left
me wondering what all the fuss was about. It’s hardly a “gay” themed
movie, despite the fact that the story revolves around the relationship
between two men. Some critics have brokered comparisons with Western
films that they feel contain homoerotic undercurrents. What they fail
to note is that the films cited often have actors who were gay or bisexual
in key roles (such as Montgomery Clift in
RED RIVER, for example).
Everyone involved in
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, from its screenwriters to
its director to its stars are heterosexual; as such they are lacking a key
ingredient that makes for queer cinema the ineffable – perhaps indefinable –
“gay sensibility.” (One might posit that one of Mr. Lee’s early films
THE WEDDING BANQUET benefited from the presence of out actor
Mitchell Lichtenstein. That movie accounts for some critics and audience
members embracing of Lee as a director who knows his way around "gay"
material.)

  Taken on those merits, in my opinion,
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN,
does not work. The story always has bothered me some from my first
reading. The initial sexual encounter between the virginal Ennis (Heath
Ledger) and the obviously more experienced Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a
result of several factors. These young men (and we’re given to believe
they are in their late teens or at most early twenties) have been
segregated for much of the summer, so it’s partly a hormonal thing. It’s not
unlike what might occur in an all-male environment (see any number of
British films set in boarding schools or all-male colleges, movies like
ANOTHER COUNTRY or BRIDESHEAD REVISITED). Not only that, the
encounter follows an evening of heavy drinking. Add factor in that it is
freezing cold, so it might be natural to share space as a means to keep
warm. Jack initiates the sex and the short scene – which has been known
to cause heterosexual men a great deal of discomfort – is tastefully staged.
Much more is implied than what is seen on screen. Of course, the next
morning neither man wishes to discuss the matter, and they can easily
dismiss the event with the "I was drunk" excuse. The dialogue hints at this
possibility (“I ain’t queer," proclaims Ennis) but where the film earns a
few points is in the fact that the two do continue a relationship, although
I was left wondering why. Of course, if they didn’t, there would be no
story and therefore no movie.

  As with any doomed romance – and make no mistake, that’s what
this film is dealing with – the boys part company. Over the next four years,
each marries and fathers at least one child. Ennis had already been
engaged to Alma (Michelle Williams, who turns a nothing role into
something memorable). They quietly build a life together  in Wyoming,
with her working at the local market while Ennis finds whatever ranch work
he can. Miles away in Texas, Jack is working the rodeo circuit where he
encounters Lureen Newsome (Anne Hathaway, wasted in an
underdeveloped role), who takes charge and seduces him. There are hints
that Lureen married Jack to spite her wealthy daddy, but her character is
the least developed of the major figures in the story. (It should be
noted that the women flash as much, if not more, skin than the men do in
separate sex scenes with their on screen husbands then the men do in
their "sex" scenes.)

  After a four-year interval, the men are reunited. When they first
reconnect, they lock lips out in the open – then realize what they are
doing and retreat to a more secluded stairwell. But they are seen by Alma
who for unexpressed reasons chooses not to say anything, but suffer nobly
in silence until years later when she can no longer stand it and asks for a
divorce. Ennis then has a tentative romance with a local waitress (a
vibrant Linda Cardellini) but that comes to naught, partly because Ennis
doesn’t seem to be in touch with his feelings.

  The men continue to meet a couple of times a year and go on “fishing”
or “hunting” trips, which are merely excuses to bond. When Jack begins
to demand more – he wants to get with the times and live together openly
on his parents’ ranch, Ennis always demurs. Even after his divorce, Ennis
refuses. We are meant to believe that his internalized homophobia
(driven home by a childhood incident) is so great that he can’t or won’t
commit to anyone. (The film also seems to avoid reflecting any societal
changes in the twenty or so years it covers from 1963 to 1983: it's as if
Wyoming and Texas are in some sort of time warp and nothing happens
from the JFK assassination to the Vietnam war to other social and political
upheavals.)

  Jack eventually begins to look elsewhere for attention and finds it in
a new arrival, Randall Malone (David Harbour) who comes equipped with a
loquacious wife (Anna Ferris) and the  same sort of come on: "I have access
to a cabin ...", which apparently is code in the Lone Star State for "I want
to have sex with you." Eventually, Jack pays the ultimate price – he’s
viciously beaten to death for his proclivities. (In a terrible note of irony,
Proulx’s story was published almost exactly one year before the murder of
Matthew Shepard in Laramie.) Ennis never  really learns the details of his
death because Lureen recites the accepted version, that he died in a freak
accident while changing a tire. Lee intercuts a brief snippet of the attack,
but several people who saw the film at the screening I was at missed this
point. Some felt it was a flashback to an incident in Ennis’ childhood, while
others didn’t realize it was Jack being attacked. In the end, Ennis has
to face life alone, deprived of what we are supposed to believe was his
one great love. Here again, this calls to mind the notion from the 1940s
on that gay men were not meant to be happy – especially in a Hollywood
setting.
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN covers those bases: one dies and the
other remains unfulfilled. At the start of the 21st Century, nearly four
decades after the Stonewall riots of 1969, this is progress? This is the best
that mainstream Hollywood can offer, reinforcement of stereotypes that
activists have been fighting to tear down for decades?

  What is all the more maddening is the fact that gay audiences (at
least in the major cities) seem ready to flock to the film to support it, as
if these crumbs were a feast. Well, that may be all well and good if
Hollywood follows through, but when those same individuals who
are paying to see this movie refuse to support movies made by openly
homosexual filmmakers, it leaves one baffled and disillusioned.


         
Rating:                  B (for the acting and the cinematography);
                                      D (for the story); C overall
         
MPAA Rating:         R sexuality, nudity, language and some violence
         
Running time:         134 mins.