Ang Lee's "Brokeback Mountain," based on the short story by Annie Proulx, is frank in its depiction of homosexuality. Unlike the chaste coupling of Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas in 1993's "Philadelphia," Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger's gay relationship happens on screen. Not only do the lovers establish their connection on an emotional level, they also kiss and hug, repeatedly, and make love in a tent on the titular mountain. Genuine progress has definitely been made. "The Celluloid Closet" provides an excellent grounding in the subject, and Lee can be commended for his contribution. "Brokeback Mountain" is an epic love story about gay cowboys and that, in itself, is something. Otherwise, the film is not one to get particularly excited over.
Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in "Brokeback Mountain"
The early scenes in which quiet and stoic Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) and jovial, boyish Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal) fall for each other are understated and even lovely. Lee spares no expense to get picture-perfect visuals: thousands of photogenic sheep traverse the mountain, a veritable Wyoming paradise of green trees, jutting mountain tops, blue sky and rolling clouds. The twangy, evocative guitar score sets the tone for the film's mood of plaintive longing. We see the men bond over cans of bean and shots of whiskey. Their relationship develops slowly and credibly.
"Brokeback Mountain" sets out to be an epic love story, but the romance is weighed down by the burden of covering a twenty-year time span. It's a heavy task for any filmmaker: to cover so much story, the necessary marriages, births, and necessary heartrending death, all the while asking your stars to age on screen. Appropriate make-up is applied, hair thinned and turned gray, slim bodies made to appear paunchy. The effect, unfortunately, is one hundred percent false. Gyllenhaal simply is not convincing as a middle-aged, hen-pecked cowboy. He acts so hard, he practically screams: I am playing a challenging part. Ledger, who talks less throughout the film, makes out better.
Like the lovers, the film never regains the heart and simplicity of young Jack and Ennis on their mountain. Once they come down, their real (meaning straight) lives begin. Ennis marries his childhood sweetheart Alma (Michelle Williams, who is wasted in the role of the suffering wife.) Jack marries a sexy young rodeo girl (Anne Hathaway, who has her own problems, including big blond hair.) Because both husbands are closeted gay men, neither marriage works. They go through the motions of a heterosexual lifestyle, raising children and working jobs they do not care for. The subject is certainly moving enough; their plight is sympathetic, but unfortunately, the love story is not. The men meet for intermittent fishing trips over the years. For the most part, the audience is subject to petty and not so petty fighting: between the married spouses and also between Jack and Ennis. "Brokeback Mountain" becomes tedious and trying. The wives want escape, the husbands desperately yearn for it, and after one hundred and thirty four minutes of poetic beauty and longing, so did I.