Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, based on a short story by Annie Proulx and in a slowly expanding release around the country, is the critical favorite for 2005. About the star-crossed love between Ennis del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), which begins in the summer of 1963 as they tend sheep together on Brokeback Mountain, equally fawning critics can't seem to decide whether it's a gay-cowboy flick or a universal study in thwarted love. The marketing has been aimed heavily at women; some men, viewing the film in George Costanza mode, may find themselves instinctively reassuring others of their unblemished records of staunch heterosexuality.
One thing is clear. The gifted Ang Lee is focused on telling a story, not on preachy moralizing; indeed, where moral judgments enter in, they do so as part of the fabric of the story. The problem with Lee's occasionally-gorgeous and often-moving film is that it has at its core a tired and unconvincing thesis about forbidden love, embedded within a classically romantic dualism of natural harmony versus alienated civilization. Lee's insistence on returning throughout the film to this contrast becomes tedious, even as the mood of the film engulfs all human passion in despair. (In its dominant mood, if not in its subject matter, it is reminiscent of last year's big winner at the Oscars, Million Dollar Baby.)
The first part of the film takes place on Brokeback Mountain, where Lee persistently frames the daily lives of Ennis and Jack against wide shots of mountains, valleys, and rivers. The impression left by Lee's repeated switching of the scenery between wide-open vistas and the daily routines of human beings is twofold. First, there is the sense of the smallness of the human world in the face of nature. In size at least, the natural world dwarfs the human, threatening to render it insignificant. But the desires of human beings do matter — or at least they cannot help but seem significant to those who experience them. The second impression is that the homosexual love of Jack and Ennis is in harmony with nature, while other loves, prominent in the artificial, civilized world, are in some sense unnatural. In this, Lee reverses the natural/unnatural hierarchy of heterosexual and homosexual loves. But he also engages in a piece of simplistic, Rousseauian romanticism. (In a perceptive review on Andrew Sullivan's site, Ross Douthat notes the reversal but sees it in Greek, rather than distinctively modern, terms.)
Substitute, for example, a female for one of the male partners and Brokeback turns into a standard, if not entirely credible, film about forbidden love. Both individuals have their first defining sexual experience during a summer in which they are isolated from everyone else, indeed from civilization itself. For whatever reasons, the two lovers agree that the relationship is unworkable and move on (or at least they try to move on) and perhaps half convince themselves that they have moved on. That illusion is punctured a few years later when another encounter rekindles old fires. Still, obstacles in conventional society continue to make a life together impossible. So they meet occasionally for wild sex in tents and stolen moments of cuddling under the stars.
Ennis, much more than Jack, is the reason they never even try to make a life together. He insists that it won't work; his most expansive explanation (he's the shy, silent type) has to do with a lesson from his childhood, about the threat of violence against those who are suspected of being gay. As is Lee's wont, the film is not heavy on moralizing, but the theme of violence against gays comes off as a powerful indictment. Still, we have other reasons to be skeptical, or at least deeply uncertain, about whether this love could survive embodiment in civilization. Jack and Ennis have never been together other than in a romantic never-land for fleeting periods of nearly silent passion. The only real conversation the two have is toward the end when they argue over what might have been. One wonders whether what sustains their love, beyond sexual appetite, is precisely its being forbidden.
This is not to say that their longing is not real. Some scenes here are emotionally searing, especially one which depicts Jack's joyous drive to what he thinks will be a reunion with Ennis, followed by his tearful, shattered retreat when he realizes they will not be together.
The two try to lead normal lives, marry, and have children. As Jack's wife, Lureen, Anne Hathaway is serviceable, but she never really recovers from her first moments on screen when she seems to be performing in an R-rated southern version of Princess Diaries. The surprise performance in the film is that of Michelle Williams, best known for her role on Dawson's Creek. There, she befriended a gay classmate; here, she finds it much more difficult to marry and raise the children of the gay Ennis. As the poor, laboring wife of an incommunicative male, whom she spies at one point passionately kissing another man, she delivers an emotionally compelling performance. One of the most astonishing scenes in the film occurs after their divorce, when she finally musters the courage to confront her husband about what she knows he's been doing on all those alleged fishing trips with Jack. Ennis's initial, feeble attempt at refutation gives way to silent, mutual recognition, shared horror, and then sudden violence. In Alma's eyes, as she brings herself to speak the knowledge she has kept secret, the viewer may detect a horror not just at infidelity or at the lies but at the precise form of Ennis's infidelity. That scene raises an interesting question about Lee's film. Is it so dramatically capacious that it encompasses both the horror of society's violence against homosexuals and a perspective that is aghast at homosexual activity?
Some critics have complained that Lee falls into the trap of presenting gay love in exclusively tragic terms; others have objected to the depiction of women as shrewish, oppressive, and incapable of affection. But this is a world where no one ends up happy, where love is never what it seems it might be or what it aspires to be. So avidly and repetitiously does Lee drive this point home that the film becomes a tedious study in the contrast between the world of romantic homosexuality under the stars and the petty conventional world of ordinary society. The family itself is doomed to frustration, hypocrisy, and misery. The desolation of family life simultaneously reaches its pinnacle and turns unintentionally comic, when Jack's very creepy parents finally make an appearance in the film. Living in an austere, creaking old house, which might as well be their tomb, they are like something out of the opening of a B-horror film. (One half-expects them to be harboring Leatherface.)
This is not a film that presents hope for reform; indeed, it is hard to identify any substantive resources for hope or change, except a romantic return to the wild. All love seems deceptive, doomed. When Ennis says to Jack, "If you can't fix it, you gotta stand it," he might be speaking for all the characters in the film.
Lee has done bleak before, in Hulk, which features the consequences of suppressed passion, guilt, and anger, and in the masterful and underappreciated The Ice Storm, a vivid and benumbing depiction of the consequences of the sexual revolution on family life in the early 1970s. But The Ice Storm offered a possibility of transcendence for the audience if not the characters, in the symbolism of the ice, which suggested an interpretive lens through which we might come to understand what has gone wrong in the lives of the adult characters. By contrast, Brokeback's symbolic reliance upon naively innocuous pictures of mountainous regions, where more than the deer and the antelope play, is simplistic. Indeed, the film bespeaks neither renewal nor tragedy, but bleak exhaustion.