Dir. Ang Lee
Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway
To begin with: Brokeback Mountain isn't a gay cowboy movie. The lead characters herd sheep, ergo it's perhaps more accurately termed a gay shepherd movie. But that common shorthand for the movie says a lot about our icons of masculinity and the extent to which we start off viewing Brokeback through that specific lens, before the film engrosses you in its great tragic love story.
The plot, for those as yet unaware, involves Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), a pair of young men - the former a ranch hand, the latter a rodeo cowboy - who work one summer on Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming, and end up falling in love. But this being 1963 and this being backwoods America, neither of them know what to do with this profound love; instead, they return to their lives and settle into marriages, but carry on meeting back at Brokeback on 'fishing trips'. It's not so much that there is overt homophobia (although their erstwhile boss does make some snide remarks) as that plausible options remain seemingly completely beyond their ken. Even after over 20 years of their long-term affair, even after divorce, Ennis, the more cautious of the two, finds it impossible to conceive of spending a life together, and it is the start of an unending procession towards regret.
Restraint in the face of society's strictures, and the competing demands of the heart and propriety: these are fields Ang Lee has patrolled before in The Ice Storm and Sense and Sensibility (not to mention his earlier Taiwanese ones), even if the landscape and timeframe are very different. Lee directs with a sure hand: each of Jack and Ennis's movements at the start are precise and restrained, embodying caution and wariness both against the wild outside and the wild inside. When the restraint breaks, in the rough and tumble of their first sex scene, it comes across as a fury of release, only to turn the next morning back into a controlled escape, with Ennis riding off.
This dichotomy of restraint and release plays throughout Brokeback: it is only with each other that Ennis and Jack allow themselves to be unrestrained - and thus happy. (Admittedly, though, while the restraint is intended, the movie can come across occasionally as too mannered as a result.) And Jack's "I wish I knew how to quit you" at their last meeting is the movie's iconic line, summarising the tragedy of limitations that underpins the movie. The two clearly miss each other, clearly are in pain at separation, and yet that critical push never comes, and they retreat back to their respective lives - the hardscrabble ranch life for Ennis, the successful but cold marriage for Jack.
Perhaps it is apposite, then, that Jack is a rodeo cowboy, clinging on for 8 seconds in the hope that staying through a period of madness brings glory, brings salvation. What do we make of chances unseized? How do we go about a life when the heart is elsewhere? Or conversely, should we go about a life knowing that the heart is elsewhere? Brokeback Mountain has no easy answers. All it can do is show what it knows: there were these two men, and they fell in love, and their love was true, profound, and unshakeable, even upon death.