Miraculously, you discover that you can take your heart out of your chest without dying. Well, perhaps you’re not really alive but you walk, talk, get business done, and nobody suspects that you are actually an ambulatory corpse. You keep your still throbbing heart in a little box in the attic. You go up to visit it from time to time. In the attic’s darkness you breathe on your heart, whisper tributes to it, caress it with your eyes. Of course you must keep your visits furtive and few lest anybody suspect how weird you are. Suspicious or not, family and friends come to regard you as dry, ungiving, and...well, rather heartless.

That’s the emotional gist of Brokeback Mountain, adapted from Annie Proulx’s short story by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana and directed by the versatile Ang Lee. Two rootless young men, Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal), dress like cowboys but get summer jobs shepherding near the slopes of a mountain in 1963 Wyoming. Ennis, an emotionally stunted orphan (and probable virgin), doesn’t know what he wants out of life, while Jack Twist, a sly tease with the demurely downcast eyes of a Victorian cherub, knows that he wants Ennis (none of this is in the dialogue, but it is superbly conveyed by Lee’s staging and choice of close-ups). On a freezing night in a tent, Jack gets what he wants and Ennis discovers he wants the same thing. But the next morning Ennis sternly declares that he “ain’t no queer,” and Jack protests, “I ain’t either.” And they both believe what they say. Queers are effeminate, right? And these two know they are real men, so they can’t possibly be queers, right? But their hormones are in command, and for the rest of the summer the youths obey their bodies with ardor. Going their separate ways in the fall, Ennis gets married and ekes out a Spartan existence for a wife (Michelle Williams) and two daughters while Jack does the rodeo circuit in Texas before marrying Lureen (Anne Hathaway) whose rich father is willing to take a son-in-law into the ranch-equipment business, an arrangement that turns Jack into an amusing consort and later into a court jester. Thus concludes the first third of the movie.

Then comes the heartbreaking rest of life as lived under the emotional shadow of Brokeback Mountain. Jack, financially comfortable but sexually and emotionally itchy, begins visiting Ennis a couple of times a year, the two going off to “fish” near their old shepherding grounds. Do these periodic revels bring enough relief to make their quotidian lives less parched? Sadly, the opposite seems to be the case: the vacations bleed work and family life pale. Ennis becomes that proverbial sad drunk in the darkest corner of the bar. Jack, growing a black moustache, comes to resemble a gigolo, which may be an indication of how he feels about himself vis-à-vis his rich wife. The two men have stored their hearts on Brokeback Mountain and are getting, in early middle age, too winded to make the climb.

I found Proulx’s short story smugly laconic, as if she was trying to out-Hemingway Hemingway. Not so the McMurtry-Ossana screenplay in which the action unfolds in a seemingly leisurely manner, and only in retrospect do you realize what economy the writers have employed. Every character, no matter how minor, commands our attention and wins at least a shred of compassion. The shaping of the story is marvelous: the first one-third filled with impulse and discovery, the last third all frustration and regret, and the midsection believably articulating how causes are lining up consequences. The dialogue is flavorously slangy and laconically poetic.

The highest tribute I can pay Ang Lee’s direction is to say that the entire movie feels as if it were written and directed by the same person. The emotional information packed into each shot and the precision with which one leads to the next resembles the flowing sentences of a good novel.

Look at the way foreground action is played off against background and vice versa. Before the youths have become lovers, Jack, doing some chore in close-up, deliberately doesn’t look at Ennis unselfconsciously undressing in the background. The close-up reveals no shifting of the eyes, no furtive voyeurism, yet we feel the sexual desire irradiating the act of not looking. Later, when introducing Jack to his wife Alma, Ennis won’t bring his lover into the kitchen but keeps him out in a dimly lit porch. Sure, this epitomizes the entire story: Ennis won’t let his secret love life into his family life. But, more subtly, because Jack is in shadow, he becomes mysterious and sensual, while poor Alma, in the well lit foreground, cannot help but appear ordinary, poignantly exposed and vulnerable. '

Script and direction layer the story with ironies, historical and psychological. In the first scene, the youths, both dressed like versions of the Marlboro Man, are actually applying for jobs as sheepherders, a livelihood that the real cowboys of the 1870s despised and waged war against. In casual conversation, the word “Pentecost” comes up, and Jack wrongly defines it as a synonym for “apocalypse.” Jack, who cannot give voice to his own sexuality, may be heading to his own personal apocalypse. And when low-life bikers insult Alma at a Fourth of July celebration, Ennis punches them out handily, but Alma, far from proud of her husband’s prowess, looks on more appalled at him than at the bikers. Then the fireworks explode and seem to be paying an all-American tribute to Ennis, this two-fisted macho man who can’t wait to get back to the arms of his male lover.

Not a single performance here is less than first-rate, but three truly sear the memory. As Ennis, Ledger took a technical risk by making his vocal delivery nearly monotone, speeding up only at the most passionate moments but never permitting himself to hit far-ranging notes. However, by playing off that monotone against the pain in his eyes, jiggling a leg to express impatience, and clenching and unclenching his fists in frustration, the actor makes Ennis fascinating. In previous work in pictures such as Monster’s Ball and A Knight’s Tale, Ledger looked round-faced and pleasant, but here he has given himself a countenance gone vertical from lack of the expressions that make a face horizontal-smiling, winking, beaming, laughing. This isn’t a matter of makeup, it’s sheer acting.

Michelle Williams presents Alma as a tightly wrapped little package with a time bomb ticking inside. In the very last scene, Peter McRobbie, as Jack’s father, expresses the very pith of self-corroded bitterness.

Brokeback Mountain will win the best-picture Oscar this year but for the wrong reason. Academy members will vote for it because they regard it as a gay movie that did great box office, thus making it a triumph both of political correctness and capitalism. But Brokeback Mountain is not a gay movie. I say that not because the principal artists involved are all straight. (Ironically, Ledger and Williams are now engaged to be married.) This superb work of art is about the tragedy of emotional apartheid, and none of us, no matter our sexual orientation, is ever safe from the way life conspires to make us put our hearts on ice.

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.
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Published in the 2006-02-10 issue: View Contents
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