Bareback Rider

December 26, 2005 by  
Filed under Film / Television

Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee, director; Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, screenplay; based on a short story by Annie Proulx; (2005).

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If you read the Friday movie reviews in your local newspaper, you already know that director Ang Lee’s controversial contemporary Western film, Brokeback Mountain, which opened a couple of weeks ago, is the “gay cowboy movie.”

If you don’t read the reviews, “Brokeback Mountain” is the story that begins with two taciturn 19-year-old cowpokes, Jack Twist (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger), who meet in a grungy Wyoming town in 1963, get a summer job sheepherding in the nearby mountains from an equally taciturn, especially gruff ranch foreman, Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid), and make their way by horseback, along with pack mules and a sprawling herd of cottony, bah-bahing sheep, into the alpine pastures and snowy peaks of Brokeback Mountain (played by the Alberta Rockies).

A rough, if not very talkative, comaraderie ensues, but there’s just enough chit-chat to learn that Jack is an aspiring rodeo rider whose folks run a desolate hardscrabble ranch nearby, and that Ennis’s parents missed the one curve in 42 miles of straight Wyoming road when he was a kid, and that the orphaned teen has made his way from ranch to ranch ever since, and is planning to get hitched to his girlfriend come the end of summer. Even the tight-lipped Ennis saying that much causes Jack to remark that that’s “more words than you said in two weeks,” to which Ennis mumbles something like, “more than I said in my whole life.” As Annie Proulx puts it, “They were respectful of each other’s opinions, each glad to have a companion where none had been expected. Ennis, riding back to the sheep in the treacherous, drunken light, thought he’d never had such a good time, felt he could paw the white out of the moon.”

In the movie version, Proulx’s terse prose gives way, understandably enough, to lots of mountainous landscape, forded streams, campfires, roving sheep herds, the occasional coyote or grizzly, and a considerable amount of drunken light, all photographed by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto. At the end of one inevitable well-liquored campfire evening, Jack persuades Ennis to crawl into the tent bedroll rather than riding back down to the puptent where he usually beds down among the sheep. And then, all of that nature — mountains, moons, horses, whiskey drinking, and horny boys — takes its course. Though Jack starts things off, soon enough, as Proulx matter-of-factly tells us, Ennis “got to his knees, unbuckled his belt, shoved his pants down, hauled Jack onto all fours and, with the help of the clear slick and a little spit, entered him, nothing he’d done before but no instruction manual needed. They went at it in silence except for a few sharp intakes of breath and Jack’s choked ‘gun’s goin off,’ then out, down, and sleep.” The movie version is more interested in the cinematographic details of sky- and mountainscapes than in the graphic details of the boys’ coupling (I assume the reference to a gun going off indicates that Jack comes, too), but there’s enough there for even mainstream audiences to get the idea.

Come daylight and sobriety, the only thing said is Ennis declaring, “I’m not no queer,” and Jack’s reply, “Me neither. A one-shot thing. Nobody’s business but ours.” Of course, given the circumstances and the force of nature (one of the film’s advertising lines goes, “Love is a force of nature”), it’s not at all a one-shot thing. “They never talked about the sex, let it happen, at first only in the tent at night, then in the full daylight with the hot sun striking down, and at evening in the fire glow, quick, rough, laughing and snorting, no lack of noises, but saying not a goddamn word…” Proulx informs us.

Nor was it nobody’s business but their own. True, “there were only the two of them on the mountain, flying in the euphoric, bitter air, looking down on the hawk’s back and the crawling lights of vehicles on the plain below, suspended above ordinary affairs and distant from tame ranch dogs barking in the dark hours.” So, sure, “they believed themselves invisible, not knowing Joe Aguirre had watched them through his 10×42 binoculars for ten minutes one day, waiting until they’d buttoned up their jeans, waiting until Ennis rode back to the sheep,” before bringing up a message about an illness in Jack’s family. Jack doesn’t figure that out until he goes back to the boss’s trailer the next summer looking for work (and maybe Ennis), only to have Aguirre snarl at him, “You boys found a way to make the time pass up there, didn’t you?,” adding, “Twist, you guys wasn’t gettin paid to leave the dogs baby-sit the sheep while you stemmed the rose.”  

At the end of the summer idyll, back in the bleak streets of the nowhere town from which they’d started out, with the first snow coming on, there’s the poignant, awkward parting. “You goin a do this next summer?” Jack asks Ennis, one foot up in his pickup. “Maybe not… Well, see you around, I guess,” Ennis says. “Right,” Jack says, and they shake hands, hit each other on the shoulder, and then there is “nothing to do but drive away in opposite directions.” But “within a mile Ennis felt like someone was pulling his guts out hand over hand… He stopped at the side of the road and, in the whirling new snow, tried to puke but nothing came up. He felt about as bad as he ever had and it took a long time for the feeling to wear off.” A very long time.

And then life goes on, as real life does. Ennis gets married to Alma (Michelle Williams), babies get made, attempts at ranching fail, and eventually they’re all trapped in the working-class squalor of a littered apartment above a commercial establishment in another faceless Wyoming town. Meanwhile, Jack goes down Texas way, makes a not especially successful stab at rodeo riding, but meets Lureen the rodeo queen (Anne Hathaway), whose daddy prospers in the farm equipment business, marries, has a child, and eventually they’re all trapped in the middle class-squalor of big screen TV and the in-laws over for holiday dinner. In real life, that would probably be that. But in the story, some four years later, Jack sends Ennis a postcard saying he’s passing through town on his way to visit his folks.

It only takes one look, one hug, one impassioned kiss (silently viewed by Ennis’s wife from the upstairs back stoop) for the rekindling of a passion that will run another decade and a half. The film traces the mutual slow disintegration of their marriages and the respective social brutalities of Jack’s and Ennis’s lives — some honky-tonks and once-in-a-blue-moon paid-up gay sex on the other side of the Tex-Mex border for the former, senseless punch-outs and grinding poverty for the latter. The dreariness is punctuated over the long years only by semi-annual “fishing” trips (during which, as Ennis’s wife notes, no fish are ever brought home), where the multiple pleasures of that summer on Brokeback Mountain are re-enacted.

At one point, Jack, the more explicitly conscious of this pair of brokeback lovers, tentatively suggests, “Listen, I’m thinkin, tell you what, if you and me had a little ranch together, little cow and calf operation, your horses, it’d be some sweet life.” They both know “it ain’t goin a be that way,” and worse, it’s a dangerous fantasy. Men have been killed for less, as the film makes clear, and no doubt some of the movie audience will remember the real-life murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, not so long ago in the Laramie, Wyoming outback. “Two guys livin together? No. All I can see is we get together once in a while way the hell out in the back a nowhere,” Ennis says. “How much is once in a while?” Jack bitterly wants to know. Ennis replies, “I goddamn hate it that you’re goin a drive away in the mornin and I’m goin back to work,” and then he delivers the tale’s punchline: “But if you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it.”

And that’s about it. Almost predictably, there’s a denouement (which I won’t reveal) that provides the last stifled sob in this legitimate three-hankie weepie.

The indisputable virtue of Brokeback Mountain is Heath Ledger’s remarkable acting performance as a man almost without words, filled with a passion that from one moment to the next might either implode or explode, and you can’t anticipate which way it’s going to go. It’s a cinematic revelation on a par with the other great acting portrayal of the year, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s turn as Truman Capote in Capote, the morally ambiguous tale of a writer’s relationship to a pair of cold-blooded killers about whom he’s writing a book. Ledger is more than competently seconded by Jake Gyllenhaal and a solid supporting cast, but it’s Ledger’s role that provides the telling silences that echo through the film’s audience.

Like all the Hollywood films that have something to say (and they are few), Brokeback Mountain is inevitably part of America’s current “culture war.” That the film’s message of tolerance doesn’t devolve into a tract or a TV disease-of-the-week movie is thanks largely to Larry McMurtry’s restrained, pinpoint-sharp screenplay. McMurtry, who’s written screenplays (The Last Picture Show), a passle of bestselling novels (including Lonesome Dove and other modern Westerns), and intelligent meditations like Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, is the sure-handed intelligence guiding this movie-making herd, and keeping it for the most part from straying into cow-pies of sentimentality.

There are minor flaws. It’s difficult for two actors in their mid-20s to portray characters who over the course of the story age 20 years. That means that at the outset, during those first pastoral romps, they’re not quite able to physically reproduce the coltishness of 19-year-olds. And when Gyllenhaal acquires a mustache as his character reaches his 30s, it only reminds us of James Dean trying to grow into a middle-age Texan in Giant. The women in the film don’t have a great deal to do, even though cowgirls have the blues, too, but this is, admittedly, a story about a man’s world, however distorted. The horrors of heterosexual domestic life are a bit over-stark compared to the suggested innocence of nature and love. On the whole, though, the shortcomings are forgiveable.

Part of the tragedy of the story is that these guys never get to the other side of the mountain — on the far side of which lies gay San Francisco. Set in the period 1963-83, Ennis and Jack live in a realm little penetrated by the outside world. No word of a gay lib movement or even the Vietnam War reaches these mountain fastnesses. This is one film that demonstrates that ignorance isn’t bliss. Instead, Taiwan-born director Ang Lee, who’s made a range of Oscar-winners from Sense and Sensibility, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to such blockbusters as The Hulk, keeps his eye tightly and wisely focused on an almost inarticulate, socially impossible relationship.

Of course, Brokeback Mountain “subverts” the Western film genre as well as male identities — something every film critic or cultural studies graduate student will be happy to point out — but so have Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, Andy Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys, and any one of Neil Jordan’s gender-benders, from The Crying Game to his current Breakfast on Pluto. Maybe the interesting thing about this particular story of bareback riders is that the lovers strike us as believably real, as does the love, and that’s no small accomplishment, in art or life.

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Vancouver, Dec. 26, 2005

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Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).