In Narrow Times
Is America ready for Brokeback Mountain? In a recent episode of Aaron McGruder's brilliant comic strip, "The Boondocks," Grandpa Freeman wonders what's playing at the movies. He wants to see "a man's movie," and looking over Huey's shoulder as he checks the paper, Grandpa notices Brokeback Mountain. Seeing it's about cowboys, he says, "Well, that sounds very manly! Let's go!" And all Huey can do is give a knowing look to the reader.
The comic perfectly encapsulates the weight of the task execs at Focus Features have set out for themselves: not only to turn Brokeback Mountain into an awards contender, but also to find appreciation from mainstream American audiences. I don't envy them. Personally, I think the U.S. is still mostly homophobic enough to shun this film about a love affair between two shepherding cowboys in the '60s and '70s, if not outright deride it. Yes, plenty of other gay-themed movies have been made, but they've thrived primarily in arthouses. Brokeback Mountain is going for the major cineplexes, with a forthright and honest campaign about its subject matter.
Although I don't envy the folks at Focus Features, I admire them deeply. I can't predict what success their movie will ultimately achieve, but I can say that this film is truly worthy of the attempt. For a while now, America has been comfortable enough with gay characters as long as they were your cheerful friend or neighbor. They can be so funny with their Will and Grace-style actics, or they'll come visit you and give you a metrosexual makeover. They'll advise the leading lady about dating, and they'll fire snappy, saucy comebacks at old, disapproving prudes. Or, instead of all that, audiences will take them seriously only if they're dying of AIDS.
Well, not this time. Brokeback Mountain tells an honest, straightforward story focusing on the universal theme of forbidden love. Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) don't match limp-wristed stereotypes; they're portrayed as two tough, different men who are living in a time and place (Wyoming for much of the movie, with scenes in Texas later) where their lives would be in danger if the people in their communities found out about their sexual preferences. Ennis understands this and tries every bit to keep that part of him hidden; Jack is a little looser about whom he reveals it to. Their story is a sad and sober one -- after the initial stage of their relationship during a summer sheepherding job, their lives alternate between living a lie and finding chances to breathe only in the sparse moments they are able to meet up again.
Director Ang Lee finds a stable balance between shooting the movie as he might have done with any other tender love story (complete with kissing, sex, and cuddling) and continuing to acknowledge the force that keeps the pair apart. In other words, he doesn't ignore the heavy burden that comes with the stigma of homosexuality, and at the same time he doesn't hit the audience over the head with it. It's just there, and it's understood without much need of mention. Brokeback Mountain becomes a movie that's foremost about a love that can never break out of its societal prison. Portraying any affair in this way has proven to be a time-tested, natural path toward empathy. Those prison bars then become clearer, and we can feel their encroaching, merciless reality.
That might be a long way of saying Lee humanizes the characters and their love. But isn't it sad even to say this in the first place, to acknowledge that homosexuals and their relationships are often denied a frank humanization in mainstream cinema? Nevertheless, this is where we are, and Lee uses all the tools at his disposal to make Ennis and Jack real and understandable. He draws unerring performances from Gyllenhaal and Ledger (Ledger in particular possibly gives the best performance of his career here). He uses the imagery to create an idyllic world of conservative Americana that both characters fit themselves into well. Both eventually marry wives and try to live the "normal" American dream, struggling with a job and kids. Jack gives up the rodeo to start a family and a new career. And when Ennis, at a Fourth of July fireworks show, finds a couple of rowdy types using rude language in front of his family, he does what any red-blooded American would do -- he stands up to them and resorts, when necessary, to force.
Throughout the movie, it's clear incidents such as that one are driven by an underlying smolder of bitter anger. It's the anger of having to deal with all of life's garbage and, on top of that, having to spend much of that life restraining certain natural passions because the world would crucify you if you didn't. It's an anger that the viewer is invited to share, and it couldn't be presented in a more respectable way -- the story doesn't pander, it doesn't manipulate, it trusts its audience to understand the emotions here, to recognize them, and to comprehend the different consequences of the events on both the protagonists and their supporting cast.
But is America ready for this today? When the lovers are Romeo and Juliet, forbidden love is easily identified and accepted. It may take many more decades before the country can see Ennis and Jack in a similar light, and when that time arrives, Brokeback Mountain will be recognized for the brave stand that it made in narrower times.
(Released by Focus Features and rated "R" for sexuality, nudity, language and some violence.)
Review also posted on www.windowtothemovies.com.