Go tell it on the Mountain: Lee’s love story haunts

By Ilana Emmett

With the first shot of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain and its first simple, haunting twang of a guitar, one quietly enters the world of Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist. Ennis (Heath Ledger), a ranch hand, and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal), a rodeo cowboy, meet when they both take up jobs as sheepherders for the summer. Despite Ennis’s timidity, the two become close and their relationship quickly blossoms into love. The film relates their 20-year love affair.

Despite being characterized as a “gay cowboy film,” Brokeback Mountain—based on Annie Proulx’s 1997 short story—is simply a love story about two people fighting so hard against love that the fight often becomes literal. The simplicity of this story is portrayed beautifully through the compelling and understated acting of the four leads. Ledger and Gyllenhaal, along with Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway (who play their respective wives), all come through with surprisingly nuanced performances. To tell a love story about gay cowboys while keeping the focus on the love is difficult, but it is clear that the actors understood the subtleties of the material at hand.

For the most part, the film looks at this relationship from Ennis’s perspective, and Ledger succeeds in leading the way. He helps the viewer make sense of the contradiction between Ennis’s shyness and his violence and understand the reasons why Ennis remains in this difficult love affair. Of all the beautiful, haunting images in the film, Ennis’s reluctant, nearly nonexistent smile might be the most touching. Ennis, who, even by the age of 20 when the movie starts, has had only hard times, tries to keep his emotions buried. But this smile seems to be the character’s way of putting himself on the line for love.

The rest of the leads all use Brokeback to continue to prove their talent as well. Gyllenhaal, whose career has included performances ranging from poignant to pedestrian, in films ranging from excellent to awful, will likely be an Oscar frontrunner for this film (not to be confused with nominations he may get for his two other films that were released this fall). Jack is more open with his emotions and his sexuality, and Gyllenhaal gracefully brings this abrupt character to life.

Williams—who will always be Dawson’s Creek’s Jen Lindley to me—has done some excellent screen work in recent years. Nonetheless, in this film she pulls off an especially touching performance as Alma Del Mar, who, unbeknownst to her husband, learns about his relationship and must cope with the secret. Hathaway was the least impressive of the four, but since she has significantly less screen time than any of the others, and her previous film work has basically centered on The Princess Diaries, success alone was enough to impress.

Above all else, though, it is the cinematography that is the star of this film. The simple, haunting beauty of this devastating love story can be seen in every single shot. The muted colors used in the movie were perfectly true to the nature of the story.

In addition to this, the shot composition is original and appropriate. Long shots with a single image in the frame are common, and the fact that the two characters are often far from each other in the same shot reflects the distance between the two men despite the closeness of their relationship.

To say that this compelling movie is without flaws would, of course, be false. But to claim that they take away from its brilliance would be false as well. Ledger’s penchant for mumbling (which I’m not entirely convinced isn’t just to hide his Australian-influenced version of a Texas accent) sometimes gets in the way of understanding his lines, but it is entirely appropriate for his character and never gets in the way of understanding his meaning. In addition to this, the film’s timeline is occasionally difficult to follow, in part because the film only portrays some of the lovers’ secret liaisons, and in part because of the actors’ inability to actually age 20 years during the film. On the other hand, this doesn’t ever confuse the love story that is the heart of this film.

In the end, this film is a complete package. In addition to the outstanding acting and cinematography, the script is touching, original, and even funny at times—at one point, after Ennis tells Jack about his home life, and Jack responds, “That’s more words than you’ve spoken in the last two weeks,” Ennis admits, “That’s more words than I’ve spoken in the last two years.” It is all these elements that Lee has brought together to create a poignant, resonant film that tells an old story in a new, beautiful way.