Karen Is the Last Liberal in America to See Brokeback Mountain

by Karen Gsteiger

Spoilers as usual, pardner.

I was supposed to go see Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain during opening week with my favorite gay boyfriends, but scheduling conflicts and the holidays thwarted me. I was determined, however, to witness the subversion of the ridiculously masculine cowboy genre through the aesthetically pleasing makeout sessions of Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger. So last Thursday, I became the last liberal woman in America to view this film for the first time.

Overall, I was shocked by the fact that I--who cries at nearly every movie with a few manipulative violin notes--remained emotionally detached nearly to the end. (Okay, the image of Heath Ledger forlornly embracing his lover's old shirt has proved haunting, but I only got misty-eyed. No tears trickled down my cheeks.) How could this be? Do I no longer believe in Tragic, Forbidden Love? Am I a heartless heterosexual unconnected to these characters' pain? Had I steeled myself for the unhappy ending a little too resolutely? I was expecting to embarrass myself with stifled sobs and a leaky nose. It wasn't that I didn't like the film; it's just that I was highly disturbed by the fact that I (primarily an emotional creature) enjoyed this film more as an intellectual experience. As Fred Willard says in A Mighty Wind, "Wha' happened?"

We all know the premise, right? Heath Ledger plays Ennis Delmar, a mumbling cowboy type who first encounters Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) when they apply for a job tending sheep on Brokeback Mountain. They find love and some rough sex during that magical summer, but it all ends too quickly, and they part ways to marry some unfortunate women and raise families. They eventually rekindle their relationship, and misery ensues in the intensely homophobic environment. And no, it doesn't end well.

I think my emotional reaction, or lack thereof, is first and foremost due to the fact that this is an Ang Lee film. I always enjoy Ang Lee films; they are engrossing and beautiful to look at. I always find the plots and the characters to be very interesting, but nothing about his work tugs at my heartstrings. The Ice Storm is a perfect example. I've watched it more than once with pleasure--I love his meticulous and mournful recreation of '70s decadence even as it leaves me cold. [Spoiler warning...] I mean, my God, people! Ang Lee kills a young Elijah Wood, and I feel nothing! Nothing! Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon...I spend more time pondering what the hell just happened than grieve for the cruel separation of two pairs of lovers. (We'll just skip over Hulk--hands down the most painfully dull and infuriatingly pretentious comic book adaptation ever made.) Keeping this history in mind, it's no wonder that Brokeback Mountain left me admiring the stunning cinematography and absorbed in the domestic drama but emotionally aloof.

I also am unhappy to report that I feel that the acting doesn't quite deserve the kudos it has received. Well, except for Heath Ledger--he deserves all the accolades and more for his portrayal of the deeply wounded and tightly repressed ranch hand. And I suppose I should give Michelle Williams her due for her turn as the bitter housewife who is damn well aware that her husband and Jack are more than just "fishing buddies." But as much as I love Jake Gyllenhaal, I truly feel that he's the weakest link in the film. Even though Jack is the boyish, gregarious dreamer, he needs to feel as real as Ennis for the relationship to really work in my mind, and I just had the hardest time losing myself in his performance, especially as Jack aged. Although he developed an odd mustache, it never felt to me as though Jack was older than 25 years old. Anne Hathaway, whose hair became horrifically distracting as the film progressed, wasn't given much to do during the proceedings, and I feel that she didn't quite nail that excruciating final scene with Heath Ledger on the telephone. He made the moment all too painful and real; she could have done more with it--betrayed a little more repressed feeling, for example. But it should also be noted that for such a young cast, they all put forth a terrific effort.

I am actually rather nervous to admit that I left the theater less than fully devastated because I know how important this film is in our current political climate. Mr. and Mrs. Heartland need to realize that we're talking about love between two human beings, not some sort of perverse sexual hobby. A love that becomes destructive when society forces people to deny their identities. Longing and need that become deadly when you chat up the wrong cowboys. That Ennis is left alone at the end of the film, tenderly buttoning up an empty shirt is heartbreaking, but I wish that Ang Lee would have let his direction be less precise and messier, more emotional, and maybe even more manipulative. Forget the perfectly framed shot of majestic snowy-peaked mountains...let the violins swell!

But that's just me.