Despite the ever-swelling chorus of effusive praise being sung for Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee’s mainstream “gay cowboy” romance turns out to be as regressively conservative as it is trailblazing same-sex cinema. Written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana (based on Annie Proulx’s acclaimed The New Yorker short story), this quite traditional tale of love torn asunder by inflexible societal forces charts the doomed affair between Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal), two cowpokes in 1960s Wyoming who find clandestine bliss together while herding sheep on Brokeback Mountain, but who are eventually driven apart by societal expectations to marry, have kids, and live a hetero life. Occasionally poignant despite its telegraphed pathos, it’s a melancholy portrait of inhibited passion bolstered by a quartet of honest, emotionally raw performances. Yet as aesthetically stilted and subdued as Ennis and Jack are sexually repressed, Lee’s film is also regularly sabotaged by its glossy, superficial construction and its disheartening failure to conceive of homosexual relations as anything other than tragic.
As with his unjustly maligned Hulk (as well as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Brokeback Mountain finds Lee focusing on the corrosive ramifications of suppressing – as well as expressing – forbidden impulses. Positing a conflict between appearance and reality, Ennis and Jack find themselves confined by their preordained roles as rough-and-tumble Marlboro Men, and though their initial amorous coupling is a burst of previously unknown (or denied) urges, the film is primarily concerned with the consequences of stifling those unruly inclinations under a façade of acceptable heterosexuality. As cast by Lee, the duo’s ensuing relationship – comprised primarily of periodic returns to Brokeback under the wife-deceiving guise of “fishing trips” – vainly strives for epic grandeur via a combination of stripped-down storytelling simplicity, pretentiously majestic cinematography and Lee’s deconstruction of the macho cowboy archetype. Yet problematically, there’s no correlation between Brokeback’s turbulent narrative content and sterile visual formalism, with Brokeback’s wild environment (a place symbolizing freedom) unimaginatively depicted without a hint of the unruly, unfettered ferocity (save for Ennis’ embarrassing run-in with a bear) that governs Jack and Ennis’ pulse-pounding desires.
With a reticent posture and deep-throated Sling Blade drawl, Ledger gets at Ennis’ inelegant internalization of his feelings even as his performance exhibits Oscar-baiting affectation, and he’s ably matched by Gyllenhaal’s embodiment of the outgoing Jack and Michelle Williams’ sterling, nuanced portrayal of Ennis’ cuckolded wife Alma. Unfortunately, however, an inescapable sense of unadventurous (and close-minded) timidity permeates the mildly stirring proceedings. Apparently convinced of its own pioneering import, Lee’s stolid film instead seems to mainly prove that Hollywood still isn’t fully capable of dealing with homosexuality in anything other than tragic terms, relegating gay ardor to a realm of unrequited misery where joy and contentment are merely fleeting (and ultimately unattainable) illusions. To be sure, the sight of marquee male stars engaging in spit-lubed sex is a landmark step towards greater acceptance of alternate lifestyles (the final scenes in which Ledger and Gyllenhaal pretend to be middle-aged are, alas, merely landmark examples of bad make-up). Yet ultimately, any number of this year’s recent international and independent offerings (including, among others, the recent Breakfast on Pluto and Transamerica) deal with similarly chaotic sexual identity issues in a more forthright, complex, and – most importantly – more dramatically engaging manner than this stodgy ill-fated saga of Romeo & Romeo.