Brokeback Mountain
Focus Features
Directed by Ang Lee
Starring Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, and Michelle Williams
Rated R

Is there a real place called Brokeback Mountain? Or did novelist Annie Proulx make it up? The name so perfectly evokes pain and loneliness and all those other tragically romantic emotions that twist your gut into a knot in the best love stories. (And Ang Lee’s remarkable film is one of the best ever.) Not flat-out directly, like if it were called Heartbreak Hill or Misfortune Peak, but just enough to leave you with the kind of lingering despair, even long after the movie’s over, that makes you feel as if you were the one that had your heart torn out and stomped on and ground into the dirt by cruel circumstance and the bootheels of miserable people with nothing better to do but condemn some of the love in the world, as if there was so much of it just hanging around that we could afford to do without a portion of it.

Brokeback Mountain might now be real … not a physical place but a cultural space, a tangible moment in time in which some folks’ eyes were opened to the pointlessness and unkindness of their bigotry. Movies don’t change the world, but if one changes the minds and thaws the hearts of just a few people, that’s a start, maybe.

Brokeback Mountain might be able to do just that, because there’s nothing in the least political about it — it’s not about anything more than two people in love. The two people both happen to be men, but they’re not guys who’ve made a “lifestyle choice,” and perhaps the fact that these guys couldn’t be more guyish might convince those who need convincing that that’s true for everyone who’s not heterosexual. “You know I ain’t queer,” Heath Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar says with something like chagrin to Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jack Twist after they discover their mutual attraction to each other. And though this has annoyed some who rightly see that while gayness itself may not be political, the fight for acceptance certainly is, it’s nevertheless true that Ennis and Jack aren’t “queer” in the sense that is about lifestyle (or, more often, stereotypes): they are ruggedly, Marlboro Man masculine, aggressive, and inarticulate, men who fit perfectly into their 1960s Mountain West ranching and hunting and fishing “lifestyle” … except that they’re gay.

In one sense, the tortured path Ennis and Jack travel together could be a gay one only incidentally, as they age from hot young lovers to a couple of (sorta) comfortable old farts — the simple, familiar terrain of a romantic relationship is instantly recognizable, and Ledger and Gyllenhaal beautifully navigate all the little moments of tenderness and anger, frustration and joy that a longtime couple experiences. But of course, their lives together — which is limited; mostly, they’re apart — are tortured because they’re gay, because of all the subtle narrow-mindedness they feel in the air around them. There is no place for a couple like them in their world, so much so that there is never any question that they will each marry a woman and have children. Ennis’s marriage to Alma (Michelle Williams) and Jack’s to Lureen (Anne Hathaway) are both disasters in their own way, layering tragedy upon tragedy: it’s more than just gays who suffer when we as a culture stifle people like we do. Ennis and Jack’s story wouldn’t be so damn heartbreaking if it didn’t have hanging over it the terrible weight of stupid senselessness. There’s no reason, not really, why Ennis and Jack shouldn’t be able to live their lives as they want — that’s the thing that’ll make ya wanna cry just thinking about the movie three days after you see it.

None of that is said; in fact, there’s very little that’s overt about Brokeback Mountain. Director Ang Lee’s beautiful, sad, empty mountain vistas say some, but mostly, it’s Ennis — Ledger is extraordinary here, so still and constant and beaten — who carries not just a heavy burden of secrecy but also of a genuine, fear-rooted understanding of the need for secrecy, a miserable counter to Jack’s optimism in the face of vicious intolerance. The Jacks of the world, they suffer, but they let the rage out. The Ennises? They just get eaten up inside and wither away. That’s unbearably heartrending, and we should all be ashamed of ourselves that we are the engineers of such wretchedness.

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