Director: Ang Lee
Starring: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams
Rated R for sexuality, language and some drug use
It’s easier, I suppose, to sell Brokeback Mountain as an epic love story than as a dreary tale of frustration and misery. Ads for the film portray sweeping scenes of natural beauty accompanied by swelling romantic strings, encouraging the viewer to think of it as Gone With the Wind for the new millennium, and the campaign appears to have worked. Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times says “It’s a deeply felt, emotional love story … the two lovers here just happen to be men,” while Peter Travers of Rolling Stone calls it “a defiantly erotic love story.”
But these are incredibly superficial readings of the film, which is worthwhile viewing for Christians and secularists alike. Ang Lee’s latest treatise on emotional suppression is a dark and truthful film about fear, pride, failure and betrayal. If love exists anywhere in this story, it is only as a theory, an untried hypothesis that haunts every character.
By now you probably know the story. The year is 1963. Two teenage drifters are hired to herd sheep on a remote mountain in the scenic wilds of Wyoming. Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) is a stoic John Wayne type, while Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) is talkative and friendly, but far removed from the rest of the world, the hardened young cowboys discover that they have much in common. Both have been cast off by their families, both have a love for the great outdoors, and both dream of making a better life for themselves.
One particularly cold night, after the whiskey bottle has been emptied, the two climb under the same blanket and find themselves submitting to strange temptations. The sex is rough and awkward, and when morning light comes, they can barely look at one another. That initial encounter leads to another, however, and soon they accept their situation as “a one shot deal – nobody’s business but ours.”
The season ends and they go their separate ways. Both go on to marry unsuspecting young women and start conventional families, but within a few years Jack tracks Ennis down, and when they meet again they immediately pick up where they left off.
And this is where the “love” story becomes muddled, for rather than painting Jack and Ennis as innocent star-crossed lovers, the filmmakers allow the characters to become self-centered abusers who emotionally abandon their wives and children. Over the next two decades, the rough riders take frequent “fishing trips” together, escaping to the wild and trying desperately to recapture the magic of Brokeback Mountain. But as their home lives crumble and resentment takes root in their relationship, it becomes obvious that “happily ever after” is not in the cards for Jack and Ennis.
Director Ang Lee, who has dealt with themes of repression before in both Hulk and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, must be commended for not romanticizing the central relationship here. Lesser storytellers would have banished the wives to the background or portrayed them as villains, but Lee allows us to feel the pain of betrayal as these innocent victims realize the men they love are liars and cowards. Michelle Williams, in particular, delivers a powerful performance as Ennis’ wife, who discovers her husband’s secret early on and suffers for years in excruciating silence.
It is, however, Ennis himself to whom this picture truly belongs. Heath Ledger’s nuanced performance is so deeply internalized that he draws every element on the screen inexorably toward him. Hiding beneath his battered cowboy hat and swallowing more words than he’ll ever speak, Ennis Del Mar is one of the truest and most heartbreaking characters you’ll ever see. When he sobs angrily at Jack, “You’re the reason I’m like this! I ain’t got nothing … I ain’t nowhere … I can’t stand being like this no more,” it is a rage of self-hatred, a confused and broken man pushing away the only person who truly knows him. He might as well be screaming at God.
Clearly, we mustn’t let emotionalism cloud our understanding of the issues at hand in this movie, but the uproar from Christian political organizations is a bit puzzling. The multiplex is filled with movies that endorse all manner of sin, sexual and otherwise, but nobody’s boycotting those flicks. Is heterosexual sin no longer an issue? Why be especially worried about this particular film?
Like any good story, this one doesn’t preach at us. The behaviors of Jack and Ennis are never excused, they are only observed, and as often as not, the observation is damning. Yes, this story is sympathetic to gay characters, but is there any reason why Christians shouldn’t feel for these two wounded individuals? Brokeback Mountain doesn’t ask us to make a judgement about homosexuality, it asks if we can feel empathy and compassion for these desperate characters who have lost themselves completely. It’s a question the church should be ready to answer.
Note: This movie contains a homosexual sex scene, which, while not explicit, is unflinching. There is no nudity during the scene, but it’s likely to make the average viewer uncomfortable.
Second Note: The film also features several heterosexual sex scenes containing female nudity, but I haven’t heard any objections about that.