It’s been a long year, friends. We are near its conclusion and we all hope you’re staying sane, safe and well out there. To even the most casual Midwest Film Journal reader, it will be no surprise that we love puns around here almost as much as we love thoughtful, entertaining criticism and monthlong series that can highlight some of our favorite creators and creations. We thank you for another great year with us here at MFJ. So in that spirit that we hope makes you smile, our December ode to one of our favorite sibling duos: Deck the Gyllenhaals.
Brokeback Mountain is ruthlessly, oppressively sad. It’s an absolute emotional beatdown that never lets up. Long before it devolves into tragedy, the film’s sense of loss and longing is absolutely relentless. It’s a heartbreaking love story that’s absolutely pitch-perfect, every note in every chord struck dead on. There always been a lot of attention paid to its courage, especially for Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal’s performances as the lead couple. Deservedly so. Telling this story was brave. I don’t mean to detract from what it meant to see two straight, good-looking mainstream actors — neither of them yet stars, not yet, but not nobodies either after A Knight’s Tale and Donnie Darko — telling a sincere and unflinching love story. Not a romance, nothing so cutesy or fleeting as that. A love story. About two people who need each other — all the way down to their bones. And they tell it well. I wouldn’t take any of that away from this film, but I think focusing too hard on its courage sells short its performances.
It’s a visually stunning film, all soaring mountain-scapes and dazzling expanses of western sky. It’s a backdrop every bit as vast as the relationships at its core are close and intimate, a contrast that is echoed throughout. Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal) is a squirrelly, rambunctious cowboy with big dreams of rodeo stardom who takes a summer job herding sheep on the titular peak in Wyoming. His partner on the range is Ennis Del Mar (Ledger), a diligent and taciturn ranch hand who is constantly teetering on the edge of being flat-broke but manages to keep just enough work to stay afloat. Jack’s effusiveness eventually wears down Ennis’s natural resistance and they become friends, and eventually that friendship spills over into passionate love. They spend a couple weeks completely consumed with each other in blissful isolation, alone with the sheep and their horses for company, but eventually the work is over and they’re forced to return to their regular lives. Ennis is engaged to a woman named Alma (Michelle Williams, showing off the true depth of her talent for the first time coming off Dawson’s Creek). Jack wants to get back on the rodeo circuit. In 1963, a life for Jack and Ennis together in western Wyoming is literally beyond imagination. They make lives of their own — Ennis and Alma together but barely scraping by, Jack stumbling his way to marrying Lurleen (Anne Hathaway) and working at her family’s successful power equipment dealership.
Even as their lives move on, Jack and Ennis eventually find their way back together over and over again, meeting for semi-regular “fishing trips” back up on Brokeback. Those trips together are both their salvation and their doom — the ray of sunshine that cuts through the clouds, bright and warm and perfect and just short enough so that they can never forget how gloomy everything else is. Alma stumbles on their secret and moves on. Lurleen and Jack keep up a civil but uninspired life together where she focuses entirely on work and he entirely on his next trip to Wyoming. Over two decades, they come together and are torn apart time and again. Ennis is stoic and unmovable, unable to allow himself the happiness he knows he craves. Jack is still the dreamer, yammering with bright eyes about the life they could build together if only Ennis would say the word. Their last meeting ends in an argument, Jack furious that Ennis’s need for work will keep them apart for an extra couple months, Ennis ferociously jealous and enraged at the revelation that Jack has sought out other men in the times they’ve been apart. They leave on worse terms than they usually do, angry, hurt and unsure what the future holds, and that uncertainty is made much worse when Ennis learns that Jack is dead — probably a victim of homophobic violence although Lurleen gives him the sanitized story that Jack’s injuries were caused by a freak roadside accident. She also tells him that Jack’s final wish was for his ashes to be scattered half in their shared cemetery plot and half on Brokeback Mountain.
Like I said, unrelenting sadness. Ennis and Jack are tragic, never able to be together in the way they need to be. Alma and Lurleen are tragic, both good women who love those men and don’t really understand why that love isn’t reciprocated. The scene where Lurleen tells Ennis about Jack’s death and final wishes is devastating. Hathaway is brilliant, tears creeping into her eyes as she realizes who Ennis must have been to her husband and what Brokeback must mean to them both. She’s kind to Ennis even in her grief and this new pain of realizing that even in death Jack is torn between their family and his true love. She’s kind because she loved Jack, too, and she knows what he sacrificed to be her good and gentle husband. Neither of the wives are the villains here. It’s not their fault that Jack and Ennis can’t be together, they’re just a part of the whole that keeps them separated.
Yet even in this blizzard of sadness, it’s Gyllenhaal who really brings the final heartbreak. Not because Jack dies, even though that’s heartwrenching. It’s because throughout the story, Jack is the one who never stops moving, who never stops dragging Ennis out of his shell, who never stops standing up for Lurleen and their son with his domineering father-in-law. Jack is the one who never stops hoping, who never lets go of his dream that he and Ennis can just have a life together somewhere. Ennis is the tragic figure here, but Jack is the hero. From the very start, it’s Jack who can’t sit still, won’t leave Ennis alone. Their first night together only comes when he literally demands Ennis join him in the tent after a long night of drinking rather than freeze to death outside, and even then it’s not until the fire burns out and Ennis is shivering in the moonlight that he acquiesces. Jack is the one who reaches out first when they reunite. So when Jack finally despairs, when he finally breaks and loses that spark and finally lets Ennis go, that’s the moment that really tears you apart.
Ledger’s performance is stunning, arguably the best in a too-short career, but it’s Gyllenhaal who really stands out to me. Earlier I mentioned director Ang Lee’s masterful use of contrast throughout the film, both visually and within the story. Jack and Lurleen’s conspicuous wealth juxtaposed with Ennis and Alma’s poverty, Jack’s brightly colored shirts and expensive hats against Ennis’s drab work shirts and worn-out parka. Bright sunny skies with a sharply defined storm front rolling in. The lush greens and blues of Brokeback with the muted dusty brown of Ennis’s hometown. It’s everywhere in this film, but nowhere as clear or as important as the contrast between its two leading men. Gyllenhaal as Jack is always in motion, always fiddling or fidgeting. And yet it’s not that Jack is fearless or incautious, or that Ennis’s worries are overblown. Jack has the same fears; we see it every time he moves toward Ennis. The difference between them is that Jack makes the decision over and over again that having what he wants is too important and that whatever risk he takes by extending himself is worthwhile because the cost of not having it is far worse.
That hesitation makes Gyllenhaal’s performance here special. He’s not just playing the free spirit opposite Ledger’s stick-in-the-mud. Jack is no more free than anyone else in the story, he’s just far less willing to accept the limitations. We see it when he’s convincing himself it’s worth making a pass at a fellow rodeo rider in a bar or when he finally stands up to his father-in-law. When Jack finally loses it with Ennis, Gyllenhaal brings it all together. Their fight doesn’t just stem from Ennis not being available; for the first time in their relationship, Ennis is on the wrong side of Jack’s going after what he wants. Jack still wants Ennis, for sure, but he also wants and needs someone to chase that dream with him, to let go the rest of the way and live a real, whole life together. And in that climactic argument, it’s suddenly clear that if what Jack wants is a life with someone, Ennis is keeping that from him. Goodness knows that “I wish I knew how to quit you” has been the backbone of a million homophobic jokes in the years since this film came out, but it’s a testament to the power of Gylleanhaal’s performance that even after 15 years of being a cliché the line still hits home when you watch it in context. Especially when you watch Jack’s body language change, that constant motion slowing to nothing as that last hope drains out of him and he lets the dream go. I certainly respect Gyllenhaal (and Ledger) for the courage it took to tell this story and bring these two men to life onscreen, but his performance is special for reasons far beyond just being brave.