Thursday, 16 February 2006

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

A sympathetic portrayal of a forbidden love affair

Movie fans, rejoice! Brokeback Mountain has been passed uncut by the Singapore Film Censorship Board. Prior to the change in film rating rules, other movies have fallen to the Edward Scissorhands-like moral guardians – remember how 3 very chaste, almost sisterly kisses in The Hours (2002) were obviously hacked away? There’s a reason for all this madness: Ang Lee’s latest masterpiece, chronicling twenty years of a bleak, unromantic and doomed relationship between two cowboys, is as far as possible from promoting and glorifying homosexual lifestyles.

Ang Lee’s faithful screen adaptation of Annie Proulx’s original short story begins with Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal), 2 down and out 19-year-olds seeking a summer job at Wyoming’s Brokeback Mountain. Their new boss (Randy Quaid) tasks them to tend sheep on the mountainside. In the harsh but scenic landscape, Ennis and Jack have no other human company, and the normally rugged and taciturn men strike up a friendship. Jack’s winning ways manage to draw the quiet Ennis out of his stony silence into a new-found eloquence. “That’s more words than you’ve spoke in the past two weeks,” Jack exclaims in surprise. “Hell, that’s the most I’ve spoke in a year.”

The two handlers open up to each other more, and then it happens: after a drink too many, the duo consummate their friendship. The morning after, both men attempt to shrug off the brief encounter. It’s a one-off deal, Ennis tries to convince himself. “You know I ain’t queer”, he adds, and Jack agrees “Neither am I.” Yet the rest of the summer is spent in fierce embraces.

At the end of their job, the two part, convinced they’ll never meet again. They get married to different women, raise their children, and yet are continually haunted by the memories of that summer in 1963. A chance meeting four years later lead to a long distance correspondence through postcards, a series of romantic escapades (explained to their wives as “fishing trips”) over the next 20 years, a faithful arrangement that endures their failing marriages and disappointments in life.

To call Brokeback Mountain a “gay cowboy movie” would be to cheapen the inspired writing of Annie Proulx and the sensitivity of Ang Lee and his screenwriters, and to miss and misunderstand the entire point of the tragedy of their love. In the background of Jack and Ennis’s affair are several invisible forces whose pervasive presence create an oppressive atmosphere in the movie.

In the realistic rural poverty of Ang Lee’s Brokeback, cowboys have lost their allure and status as the icons of the Wild West. There once were cowboys, but in their place now are a diminished lot struggling with unemployment – part-time ranchers guarding sheep (in the movie, even their jobs are getting outsourced to Mexican labourers), midwives to cows, rodeo riders at entertainment shows. Poverty, being broke, is a noose that hangs over the 2 lead characters. It constricts their possibilities to the point where they can only do what is expected of them.

Ennis gets married and honourably does his duties to wife and children. This is very hard work, considering his pay hardly covers the family expenses. Alma (Michelle Williams), his wife, contemplates moving to the city, but the couple cannot even afford the simplest lodgings in town – and one suspects Ennis does not have the skill to survive in the city. There is no way out in rural Wyoming, a region where today a quarter of the population is living near the poverty line, with an additional 10% below the line. Nothing to look forward to in life, except fulfilling what society expects: get married, have children, and die earning money to feed everyone.

Like a character in Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, Jack realises there are very few ways out of the poverty trap. He confides in Ennis he may be drafted, but before he escapes through the army, the daughter (Anne Hathaway) of a rancher snags him. Quite possibly the only rich cowboy in the movie, Ennis’s father-in-law sells very large and very expensive farm machinery, and does his best to make the rodeo cowboy feel unwelcome, even though he is part of the family.

There is the small-minded society in both Wyoming and Texas. Ennis speaks with horror of the lynching of a pair of ranchers. Then nine years old, Ennis is dragged by his father to look at their remains, and the image scars him for life – vanquishing any inclination to seek for a life with Jack. Fear rules his decision to keep his relationship with Jack under wraps. “Bottom line is... we're around each other an'... this thing, it grabs hold of us again... at the wrong place... at the wrong time... and we're dead.” He’s not too paranoid, though: in 1998, openly gay youth Matthew Shepard was murdered in a hate crime in Wyoming. The ridiculously small social circle in Texas drives Jack to alternate between despair and a mad desire to run away. Both men are driven by their society towards each other, again and again – yet the same society also condemns them to lead lives of quiet desperation.

There is literally no escape from their situation. Both men find themselves unable to move away from their obligations, to have a place of their own. They fear escape, they don’t want to escape. And so they have nothing but each other and the picturesque but ultimately suffocating Brokeback Mountain – which comes to stand for both men the limitations of their circumstances and their decision to make do with these limitations.

Those who complain that hardly anything really happens in Brokeback Mountain will do well to understand the constricting and ever-shrinking goldfish bowl of a world that Ang Lee painstakingly creates and brings to full emotional intensity. Ang Lee’s previous works (Eat Man Drink Woman, Sense and Sensibility, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) featured repressed women dealing with the confines of their society. This new masterpiece examines the same themes (with repressed men in the place of the women) in such great detail that one is unable to condemn both men or even their wives for their flaws.

First published in incinemas on 16 Feb 2006.

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