It's hard to say just what audiences are responding to, but, though curiosity is part of the equation, whatever it is, it hits hard, runs deep and leaves a powerful impression."
I’m not sure if enough time has passed that those who plan to see it already have, but just in case, there be SPOILERS here! Read onward at your own peril.
On its limited release opening weekend, a friend and I left the men-folk at home parked in front of a football game and went to see that gay cowboy movie, Brokeback Mountain. As you already know from my previous rant, I was a bit a feared I’d have to wait for the DVD release because, at the time, it looked as if no local theatres planned to show the potentially controversial movie.
The above snippet from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel review restores my faith in my fellow humans. Having worked on a movie and knowing how important box office is, the fact that the studio moved the wide release up as much as it did speaks volumes about what's happening out there. I'm so happy and relieved to learn that people will overcome their own fears, stereotypes, and general ignorance to give a good movie - even one that features gay cowboys - a chance. We may have a long way yet to go, but it seems we are at least taking some steps in the right direction.
Not only did I get to see BM when I wanted to see it (rather than being forced to wait), I got to see it in style. We plunked down the extra six bucks to go to the Premium Theater. For those not as hep as me (yeah, right), the Premium Theater has a restaurant and a bar, with waiters and waitresses that come to check on you during the movie to see if you require more beverages of the alcoholic persuasion. You must be over 21 to get in, thus assuring there will be no twittering thirteen year olds sitting in front of you or crying toddlers up seven hours past their bedtime because their idiot parents couldn’t/wouldn’t get a sitter yet didn’t have the sense to just stay home.
At the Premium Theater, you sit in wide, comfy leather seats, with a little console table next to you where you can put your drinks and food. Popcorn flows freely (and free-ly), with cups of hot, melted butter you can pour over to your specific liking. You must have reservations in advance, so you’re assured of getting a seat. Although, there are a few seats placed way too close to the screen for optimal viewing, and they call your name in an order which I cannot fathom, so there is the potential to get a not-so-great-seat if you’re not lucky.
Anyway, cozily ensconced in my leather seat, popcorn in hand, glass of whine and Diet Coke at the ready, I could not wait to see this movie. I’d brought along a pack of Kleenex since I planned to cry. That wasn’t necessary, as the guy next to me explained by indicating the pile of napkins on the table between us that he’d earmarked as his tissues.
The audience was probably about 70% homosexual men, 29% couples on a date wherein clearly the man came out the loser, and my friend and I, the only female couple in the theater. It didn’t occur to me until we’d arrived back home that probably everyone there thought my friend and I were lesbians. We did share popcorn, but we didn’t hold hands.
Now, for the movie.
Is it as good as it's being haled to be? Yes. And no.
First of all, I didn’t cry. I fully expected to cry. In fact, I figured I’d be going through some Steel Magnolias level weeping. And the movie did offer tear-inducing moments. There was open sobbing throughout the theater, but for reasons I still haven’t fathomed, I didn’t cry.
To give those of you who have no clue a bit of one, here’s a small synopsis. Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist are two young cowboys who are sent up the side of a lonely mountain to herd a bunch of sheep through the summer. While up there, they establish a friendship, which turns into something physical despite the fact that neither man has any homosexual inclinations to their own knowledge. By the end of the summer, their feelings for each other run far deeper than simply physical, and when they part ways, maybe forever, the first sense of what these two mean to each other becomes clear when Ennis becomes physically ill over saying good-bye.
But this is the mid-sixties, in the heart of homophobic cowboy country, so naturally the two men can't be together in any romantic sense. Instead they must go off to live normal lives with normal relationships, normal being defined as the male/female variety. Except it’s not so easy to forget what happened on Brokeback Mountain. After a few years, the two men meet again, and they begin what turns out to be twenty years of meeting several times a year to revisit their relationship.
From the get go you know this movie must be a tragedy. There is no possible way these two men could show their feelings for each other openly. As a young boy, Ennis had been so deeply affected by the brutal torture and death of a homosexual man it was a lesson he’d never forgotten even if he couldn’t quite muster the feelings of outrage that had led to such hate bashing. In a million years he could never imagine settling down with Jack, leaving his wife and daughters, and risking the scorn, hatred and probably worse of society around him.
Here’s where the SPOILERS come to play. Please, don’t read on if you plan to see the movie.
The power in this movie is how it asks us to think about the nature of love. It’s not about the gender of the person you love. It’s about how you love. And what it means to love even when doing so causes nothing but a lifetime of painful longing and dissatisfaction. The fact that these two people are both men has absolutely nothing to do with anything except for providing the reason why they can’t be together.
In fact, after their first sexual encounter, Ennis informs Jack that despite what had happened, he wasn’t “no queer.” And even though he and Jack continue this physical relationship – clearly a homosexual one – I would argue the same. Because for Ennis, it’s not about desiring men. It’s about loving one man. Jack.
Throughout the story, Ennis never expresses any desire at all to be with other men. If it’s not Jack, it’s no one. Not his wife, not the potential second-wife in the form of a flirtatious waitress. It’s not trips to Mexico where he can pick up male prostitutes. He’s not unhappy because he’s being forced to live the life of a heterosexual when deep inside, he’s a homosexual. His story is a tragedy because he cannot be with the one person he loves just because the person happens to be a man.
He didn’t go looking for Jack because something was wrong or missing in his life. He was ready to marry his sweetheart and be very happy. Until he met Jack.
And then, nothing or no-one but Jack could make things right.
Jack proved to be a little less conflicted. Jack clearly loved Ennis. He clearly struggled with and was hurt by Ennis’s rejection of Jack’s idea of a life they could have together. But Jack’s desire for Ennis was fueled by what seemed to be an interest in men in general. As time passes, Jack hints that he could be interested in other men. He takes that trip down to Mexico. He even takes up in an affair with the husband of a friend of his wife’s. As much as you know Jack loves Ennis, Jack is much more okay with who he is and struggles more with Ennis’s inability to accept things the way they are. He gets angry at Ennis for being angry with him when he pursues other outlets for his feelings. Ennis won’t give him the life he wants, so he feels justified in finding others who will.
I won’t tell you about what happens. I will tell you that the one person I actually felt the worst for was Ennis’s wife, Alma. Alma witnesses Ennis greeting Jack with a kiss so passionate and fierce that it made me lightheaded. All of the sudden, the steady man she loved proved to be someone else entirely. And for years she’s powerless to say anything or do anything. Her pain is palpable, brilliantly expressed by actress Michelle Williams.
I’ve said that if Heath Ledger doesn’t win an Oscar for his portrayal of Ennis, I know something isn’t right with the world. His depiction of the stoic, non-communicative Ennis is amazing. You can feel how he seethes beneath his skin, stuck in a life that doesn’t fit him at all but powerless against society and his sense of responsibility to pursue what would most make him happy. As Ennis says to Jack, “If you can’t fix it, you gotta stand it.” For two hours you watch Heath Ledger struggle to stand it, and it nearly breaks your heart.
Jake Gyllenhaal also deserves a heap of props for his work. Jack wasn’t nearly as subtle of a character as Ennis, wearing his heart and emotions and thoughts on his sleeve far more clearly. But I cannot imagine any other actor in this role. He provided the perfect counterpoint to Ledger’s Ennis, filling in the blanks in such a way as to turn their two halves into a complete whole.
When I walked out of the theater, I wasn’t sure how I felt about this film. I guess I had expected to be moved and haunted and blown away in a full body slam sort of way, yet I wasn’t. It’s the kind of movie that takes time to gel in my mind. It’s the kind of movie I want to see again because I’d like to pay more attention. And it’s only after I’ve had time to roll it over a bit that I finally realize how good it really was.
I’ll confess that my friend wasn’t impressed. She thought the movie was kind of slow; it was slow. It’s a long narrative and character study wherein no action whatsoever happens. There isn’t even really a traditional plot. It spans the course of twenty years, and there is no build up or major climax to mark time.
Too, my friend had a hard time relating to Jack and Ennis. She said that if she were an in-the-closet homosexual, she imagined that the film would have had a major impact on her. But since she can’t imagine what that would be like, it was hard for her to feel the emotions the main characters had felt. She couldn’t bridge that disconnect, and like me, her strongest sympathetic reaction rested with Alma, Ennis’s wife.
If asked to describe this film, two words I would come up with are subtle and introspective. It’s a quiet film. It doesn’t tell you how to feel or spoon feed you social agendas by making you feel so sorry for the poor, abused homosexual couple. The characters make choices and live with those without complaint even though you can see how it is killing them inside. Even at the end, when one character certainly had reason and opportunity for melodramatic gestures or expressions of extreme emotion, the same restraint was maintained because restraint was in character for that person, that time, and that situation. Story was never sacrificed for the sake of high drama.
Mostly, you feel sad that Jack and Ennis felt they had to make those choices in the first place. You wonder how many people out there live entire lives like this, in quiet desperation because what they truly want is impossible for them to have even though it’s just within their grasp.
If you get the chance, I highly recommend you see this film. For those of you interested in romance, this offers the chance to come at love from an entirely different angle. It'll break your heart, but sometimes we need that to remind us of what's important.