Very occasionally do the components of a film, (story, cast, music, cinematography, design and editing) come together in calm harmony and deliver an emotional experience that renews faith in the art. Such an unforgettable result can be found in every frame of Brokeback Mountain thanks to director Ang Lee’s vision of the awful truth that struggles helplessly to the surface in the souls of married men whose real desires remain largely unfulfilled and hidden away.
From the opening sequence, Rodrigo Prieto’s camera wordlessly sets the scene of Signal, Wyoming; its spectacular backdrop of state-owned mountains being used illegally as summer pasture for sheep, is the perfect metaphor for the twin notions of “following the rules we like” and “just don’t get caught.” For the season of ’63, fate brings together Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger, with near James Dean-like speech) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal, an instant friend of the lens) to take on the shady work of herding and tending one thousand bleating clients. With one of the hired hands sleeping amongst the animals, while the other cooks and cleans far below, there’s not much chance for exploring their growing urges until too much whisky and a cold night throw both men into the tent.
Not surprisingly, the first coupling comes a few hours after Del Mar finally opens up: both cowboys share the disappointments of their youth. The sexual tension has been on low—but present—before Twist’s unmistakable lead flicks on the fucking switch and Del Mar pounds away years of frustration in seconds. A brilliant, knowing touch was the violent shun and revulsion of a post-coital kiss: kissing is for queers!
As happens throughout, Ledger’s mastery over his rugged face expertly reveals bewilderment and replays pleasures to come when he awakens, hung-over beside his sudden love. Awkwardly he pulls up his jeans, leaving the safe harbour of selective memory little room to deny the act.
Not a word is said until Del Mar rides off to work. “See you for supper,” effectively declaims that this was most certainly not a one-night stand.
Their blissful summer comes to a truncated conclusion. Both men must now go their separate ways, unaware that their intimacy (even in the middle of nowhere) has been silently observed. Del Mar is to be married; Twist goes back to the rodeo circuit. Riveting is the scene where Del Mar heaves up his loss and his plight, spurning the assistance of a startled passerby.
Time passes. They don’t herd sheep again. Soon Ennis and wife Alma (Michelle Williams, appropriately stoic at every turn) have a family. Twist moves on to Texas and marries the aggressive Lureen (Anne Hathaway) whose Daddy (Graham Beckel) is a big shot farm machinery tycoon. “No one’s gonna love you like me,” plays in the background during their first slow dance.
All seems fine until Twist shows up for a reunion. The love-sick pair hug, then kiss in the parking lot. A horrified Alma appears in the wrong place at the right time, shuddering from head to toe at the abhorrent sight. But she holds her tongue. Like millions of others, she can’t find the courage or the words to confront her partner with the truth of his infidelity, much less his sexuality.
From then on, Del Mar and Twist return to the mountain every few months, pretending to fish and hunt but catching only themselves. In time, Del Mar divorces, but his predilection remains mute. Twist and Lureen have a boy, who is coddled and spoiled by “Daddy” until a pivotal Thanksgiving dinner scene where we hear that “Boys should watch football,” before the repressed husband finally tells his father-in-law off and slices the turkey himself!
Flash forward to the next basted bird and it’s the holiday meal where Del Mar is at the table with his daughters, ex-wife and her new husband. It’s cheering to see that everyone can be civil, but even Capriccio Espagnol burbling out of the telly can’t cover the rage unleashed in Ennis when he is confronted in the kitchen by Alma with the real reason for his frequent trips back to nature.
The doomed men try to see each other as often as their lives and lies allow. Now that Ennis is divorced, Twist suggests they cohabit near his parents. But that notion only dredges up the childhood memory of the horrific murder of a man who dared live with his partner for all to see. With discretion but unmistakable vérité the still-present reality of gay bashing slips into the film like an unwanted guest, adding another layer of candour where some lesser minds would opt for a stroll down saccharine way.
Throughout it all, Gustavo Santaolalla’s music fits the narrative like a glove: solo, then steel guitars for the lonely men in the mountains; strings are added as their romance blossoms, a country fiddle adds party zest. The recorded portions blurting out of the radio (e.g., “King of the Road”) have been chosen with care. None better than Bob Dylan’s “He Was a Friend of Mine,” to put into song the underlying travesty that attends so many “unnatural” relationships.
Lee, his talented cast and crew have done the world a great service by bringing Annie Proulx’s story to the screen, for if just one couple can use this “fiction” as the stepping stone to their happy ending, then all of the grief suffered silently by countless others may not have been in vain.
He was a friend of mine
He was a friend of mine
Every time I think about him now
Lord I just can't keep from cryin'
'Cause he was a friend of mine JWR