By Sheerly Avni
Editor’s note: “Brokeback Mountain” has been named 2005’s best film by Los Angeles film critics. See story.
“Brokeback Mountain,” the “gay cowboy” movie based on the brilliant E. Annie Proulx short story of the same name, is just now opening in theaters, but its subject matter and mostly breathless reviews have heightened its pre-release buzz and stirred the debate over its potential impact. Is it gay enough? Can it further gay marriage? Will it turn straight men queer? Can it win an Oscar? If absolutely no straight men go see it, can it still break even?
I must admit, however, that my straight female friends and I weren’t concerned about such questions as we headed to the theater. Instead, in anticipation we shared a whispered giggle: “Mmm, yummy.” No matter where the camera would take us, we would always be looking at Jake Gyllenhaal or Heath Ledger, two of the most gorgeous young actors around with two of the butchest names, with no distracting nymphets. And of course straight men would go, if only because we promised our boyfriends that they were guaranteed to get laid after taking us…. The trailer had, after all, marketed the movie as soft porn for women: Cowboys and mountains and sweat, oh my!
Anticipation like this can make a straight woman sleep well at night, and certainly overrides concerns about the hotly debated societal issues that have burdened the film’s release. (Expecting it to somehow reduce anti-gay hate crime and inform the gay marriage debate through its storyline is a hefty call-up for a movie with a $13-million budget, a hit-or-miss director—Ang Lee—and only one and a half marquee names to drive it.)
We saw the movie in what we figured would be exactly the right venue: a packed San Francisco screening co-sponsored by one of the city’s oldest gay newspapers. The whooping and hollering started before the credits rolled, and even with this relatively unshockable crowd, there were several nervous twitters during the first sex scene—an unexpected and rushed rough-and-tumble encounter in a tent on the mountain after the two main characters, at 19, first get to know each other.
The moment is over before you can say “Oh right, teenage boys,” but it’s much sexier than anything we’ve seen in other gay love stories, like “Philadelphia” or “Longtime Companion,” which played it safe with a tacit assurance that gay people are too busy suffering from AIDS to actually do anything.
Still, as Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar returned to their so-called real lives, the twitters in the theater gave way to sullen silence, which in turn soon gave way to a chorus of sobs and sniffles. And as the lights went up, the audience almost forgot to clap. The salacious trailer, promising romance, biceps and butch man-love, had lied, and instead we’d been given a restrained, sorrowful movie about failure and regret.
When we first meet the boys on the mountain, they have their whole lives ahead of them. Then they marry, make compromises, drink too much, escape for furtive meetings and try to live off their memories. Jack, played with limpid blue-eyed longing by Gyllenhaal, settles into a loveless marriage of convenience with a Texas heiress, and Ennis—in a wrenching portrayal by Ledger—loses his jobs, his family and, finally, his hope.
Both actors are exceptional, but Ledger owns the movie, as a man whose very bones are being twisted and bent by his thwarted passions. “If you can’t change it, you live with it,” Ennis tells Jack, trying to justify his decisions. But he’s wrong; he can’t. Ennis has stored his desires so deep inside himself that he’s rotted his entire world from the inside out.
The filmmaker’s triumph is in its subversion of the Hollywood template for Tragic Love, a formula that itself works as coldly and efficiently as a porn movie, and leaves you feeling just as empty. The doomed lovers of Brokeback Mountain are held back by forces even more powerful than convenient war, sudden icebergs or the will of a redlining studio executive. In the end, their ruined lives don’t just break your heart, they wring your soul.
Sheerly Avni is a San Francisco based film and culture writer.
Image: Heath Ledger (left) and Jake Gyllenhaal (right) as ranch hands and secret lovers in Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain.”
Kimberly French/Focus Features