Much has been written about Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, its Oscar nomination and subsequent loss to Crash. I have been waiting for a long time for its release in Hyderabad. PVR Cinema tantalized us with trailers and posters during the pre-Oscar weeks, but suddenly and very quietly pulled back all publicity materials in what I assume, a classic case of “sorry-no-gay-movies-we’re-Indians-please!” Finally I got hold of a DVD of the movie with decent print in a mall in Kuala Lumpur. What a pity having to watch a movie on my laptop when the grand visuals were clearly meant to be enjoyed on the big screen!!
Brokeback Mountain is at once the gayest and the least gay Hollywood film I’ve seen. If anything, the movie is an old-fashioned romantic weepy whose protagonists happen to be two men, boldly played by two of Hollywood’s hottest young (and hetero as far as I know) studs. Over the course of a long Wyoming summer in 1963, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger), a freelance ranch hand, and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), a rodeo rider, are thrown together on a sheep herding gig. Behind them is space — the airy, lonely infinity of a Wyoming mountain, snowcapped and freezing even in August — and long hours when nothing or anything can happen. To keep the coyotes away, Jack is assigned to sleep near the flock, but mostly the two men have hours, days, and weeks on their hands. They jump on horses to guide the sheep across meadows and rivers; they sit around a campfire, heating canned beans and swapping stories and a bottle of whiskey. Then, one night, when it's too cold for either one of them to sleep outside, they do something that the old movie cowboys never did: They get into a rough embrace and, without a hint of seduction, they have sex, an act that's as shocking to them as it is to us.
Ennis and Jack, who've been raised in a world where to be ''queer'' is not to be a man (and is therefore unthinkable), can't grasp the feeling that's come over them because they literally don't have the words for it. They call each other ‘‘friend” and they mean it, but their bond evolves into a delicate, suspended romance, and Brokeback Mountain becomes their Eden, the craggy cowboy paradise from which they are destined to fall.
The two grow so close in body and spirit that when the job ends and they have to part, the inexpressive Ennis slugs his lover without warning. It will be four years before Ennis and Jack meet again, and by then they have both married and fathered children — Ennis with his longtime sweetheart Alma (the amazingly subtle Michelle Williams) and Jack with rodeo queen Laureen, portrayed as best she can by a woefully miscast Anne Hathaway, who looks as if she just breezed in from tea with Julie Andrews! The two men reunite over the years, going on fishing trips where no fishing gets done, sharing, however fleetingly, the connection they can barely speak of.
Jack, a shade more comfortable with his nature, talks of getting a ranch together, but Ennis will have none of it. Stung by childhood memories of a rancher who lived with a man and got bashed for it, he fears that exposure could kill them. In the classic Westerns, the cowboys were often men of few words, but Heath Ledger speaks in tones so low and gruff and raspy his words just about scrape ground. Ennis says nothing he doesn't mean; he's incapable of guile, yet he erupts in tantrums — the anger of a man who can't be what he is and doesn't realize the dilemma is eating him alive. Ledger, with beady eyes and pursed lips, gives a performance of extraordinary, gnarled tenderness. Gyllenhaal is touching in a different way, his puppy eyes widening with hope, then turning inward and forlorn.
What deepens the tragedy of Jack and Ennis is that the obstacles to their love are only partly cultural. The romantic lesson of Brokeback Mountain is that the heart wants what it wants, and should have it regardless. In an age when the fight over gay marriage still rages, Brokeback Mountain, the tale of two men who are scarcely even allowed to imagine being together, asks, through the very purity with which it touches us: When it comes to love, what sort of world do we really want?