Because this is America'and apparently we will lose our citizenship unless we pay way too much attention to erogenous zones'all focus on Brokeback Mountain has involved the fact that two men have sex. And not just men, but men in boots and Stetsons'which is even more alarming, because if we can’t identify them by their catty bon mots, CD collections and impeccable fashion sense, then how will we know whom to shun?
Those same men also kiss in Brokeback Mountain, yet it’s curious that you don’t hear quite so much reference to the nonsexual expressions of emotion. It’s infuriating to watch this staggeringly beautiful film reduced to who places a penis where, because that is so clearly what it is not about. It’s simply a love story'only the love in this story can’t possibly be simple.
That’s because it does involve two men: Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), two cowboys looking for work in Wyoming in 1963. They take on the task of minding a grazing sheep herd in the high country together over the summer, slowly opening up to one another in the isolation of the titular mountain. And on one drunken night, their friendship turns into a consummation.
The 45 minutes that Brokeback Mountain spends on Brokeback Mountain are easily the finest chunk of American filmmaking from 2005'though they weren’t guided by an American filmmaker. Director Ang Lee provides plenty of magnificent vistas through the cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto, but he’s interested in much more than the scenery. He takes Annie Proulx’s short story and extracts every detail, watching two lonely souls each find real connection to another human being for the first time in their lives. Gyllenhaal is sharp as the more experienced Jack, but Ledger is nothing less than spectacular. Muttering every word as though it physically pains Ennis to express himself, Ledger delivers a performance that drives every frame of the film, even the ones he’s not in.
He’s not in quite a few frames as the story takes a more episodic turn over the final 90 minutes. The narrative follows Jack and Ennis individually over nearly 20 years as they both get married'to Anne Hathaway and Michelle Williams, respectively'yet still get together for occasional mountain “fishing trips” to continue their relationship. While the film can’t possibly match the force of its opening stretch, it’s here that Lee and screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana are able to unravel how Jack and Ennis see themselves'and each other'throughout their lives. Both men find themselves occasionally lashing out when they feel their masculinity threatened'Ennis by two loudmouths at a Fourth of July fireworks display, Jack by his domineering father-in-law at Thanksgiving dinner. And both men know they need to be defined by the way they provide for their families.
What they don’t know is how to define what they are to each other. The one word that runs throughout the years when they communicate with each other'the most intimate description they can think of for their connection'is “friend.” Homosexuality in Brokeback Mountain isn’t just “the love that dare not speak its name?; for these two people, what they feel doesn’t even have a name. On a certain level, the film becomes not just about a world that won’t let two men be gay lovers, but about a world where any genuinely emotional connection between two men'even a celibate one'would somehow be just as impossible.
It’s not celibate in this case, of course, although Jack and Ennis’ first night together is the only time we actually see them together sexually. And it might be one of the most furiously raw sex scenes ever committed to film, a combination of desire, confusion and anger that erupts into something unexplainable. It’s going to make some people uncomfortable to face the, er, mechanics of anal intercourse, and that’s probably going to scare away plenty of the people for whom Brokeback Mountain'a masterpiece as quiet and powerful as Ennis Del Mar himself'might be a revelation. They’ll miss the longing in the passionate kiss when Jack and Ennis reunite, and miss the whole point of how tragic a life could be separated from the connection that makes you whole.