The year is 1963 and two jobbing farmhands (Gyllenhaal and Ledger) take a gig tending sheep on a remote mountain. During their months alone, they form a bond that extends to a sexual relationship, but once the job is finished they return to their daily lives. However, the attraction remains, and will haunt them over the next two decades.
When word first reached us that, after the critical opprobrium heaped on Hulk, Ang Lee was turning his attention to what was only ever described in the press as a “gay Western”, we thought he’d taken leave of his senses — and, indeed, sensibility. A director with a remarkably broad palette, Lee had trademarked a devastating understatement in films as controlled and anguished as The Ice Storm, while Crouching Tiger revealed his magic touch extended to action too. Now there was a sense that maybe he was about to overreach himself, or (worst-case scenario) had lost all sense of identity and was about to over-indulge himself. Then, when stories leaked that the Cannes Film Festival had given it the thumbs-down this year — in favour of a line-up that consisted of directors we’d definitely consider to be his peers — it really seemed that the shit was about to hit Lee’s fans.
We needn’t have worried. Brokeback Mountain may even be Lee’s finest film to date, an amalgamation of the work he’s done before but pushed forward into the realms of, well, something we’ve never seen before. Though the opening half-hour is dream-like and idyllic, recalling the more beautiful landscapes in Gus Van Sant’s most mainstream movies (My Own Private Idaho specifically), Lee’s film takes arthouse conventions and absorbs them into a style that, while never approaching commercial, is both romantic and accessible. Much of this is down to the two leads — neo-Hollywood heartthrobs playing, to one degree only, against type — but Lee is careful with his framing and the first half hour — that ominous lead-up to the first graphic fumble — is suffused with rare beauty and an almost palpable sense of place.
Half an hour of mountains, sheep, changing seasons and minimal dialogue may seem a leap for most audiences, but Lee’s touch is light instead of stately, and he leads us slowly into an affair that would otherwise seem forced and clumsy. As he says himself, Brokeback Mountain itself is a key supporting player in the film, a place where nobody else matters — or, more importantly, is. It’s a vital part of the movie that prepares us for the inevitable day when Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) come down from their idyll and try to pick up their lives where they’d left off. Both enter into half-hearted marriages, have children and take shitty jobs, but the memory of the time on the mountain lingers. Could it last in the real world? Jack, ever the idealist, thinks so; Ennis, the fatalist and the realist, knows otherwise, shrinking back into his armour of plaid and leather.
It’s here that Lee’s film truly announces its intentions, and for a good portion of the drama Jack and Ennis are far apart; in fact, they don’t even communicate for four years. In the meantime, they settle into drudgery and roles they resent, but Lee’s masterstroke is to pull the camera back from their interior world. What sounds on paper like a traditional gay independent movie does not follow the usual formula and actually gives voice to its audience’s prejudices and apprehensions. We hear their Brokeback boss, Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid), snidely pass judgment (“You boys sure found a way to make the time pass up there”), and when Ennis’ wife (a poignant Michelle Williams) sees exactly what the score is with Jack, her confusion — and indeed revulsion — is key to the film’s climax, if it can be said to reach one in the usual sense.
But enough of Lee and his dexterity and subtlety — we’ve known about it all along, even in Hulk, which, for all the kerfuffle and despite a lumpy ending, was a sensitive sins-of-the-father story wrapped up in genre clothing. Jake Gyllenhaal, too, is something of a known quantity, a lugubrious presence whose big blue eyes will make Brokeback a paradoxically compelling object of morbid passion for teenage girls the whole world over. And we’ll forget the terrific marketing strategy of having The Princess Diaries’ star Anne Hathaway make her topless debut. No, the real revelation here is Heath Ledger as the bruised and sometimes brutal Ennis.
His tortured secret is the tragedy and the ecstasy of this powerful and moving film, a smart study of relationships that could but can’t and never will be.
Those made uneasy by the subject-matter have little to fear from this elegiac and engrossing drama, a wonderful meditation on longing and regret shot with an eye for classic Hollywood. Gyllenhaal gets the show-role, but Ledgers buttoned-down performance