A History of Violence
Despite the obvious precedent of Andy Warhol's Lonesome Cowboys, and many other westerns that were less explicit and jokey, Brokeback Mountain has unmistakably established a new screen archetype. This is no small achievement. When asked what can happen in the movies, you might think of the Little Tramp kicking up his heels, Rhett cradling Scarlett in his arms, Marilyn playing with her skirt over a subway grate, the big ape carrying a blonde up the Empire State Building (see below). To this limited store of images, we may now add another: Heath Ledger as Ennis and Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack, necking rapturously behind a laundromat in Riverton, Wyoming.
Based on a story by Annie Proulx, written for the screen by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana and directed with masterful assurance by Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain narrates twenty years of love, secrecy and frustration in the lives of a pair of modern westerners. They meet as dirt-poor teenagers in 1963, when they hire on to guard a herd of sheep high up in the mountains; and they part for the last time two decades later, having lived for those few days each year when they can steal away on the "fishing trips" that don't fool their wives.
It's a rudimentary story, dominated by time lost and events that didn't happen; and one of its two main characters is so inward that he can scarcely bring himself to speak, or even look at people. So the challenge in making Brokeback Mountain was to create and sustain a mood in all its nuances, working from stuff that's as thin as the mountain air. I suppose another director might have dealt with this problem by inventing all sorts of complications, dramatic or stylistic. Ang Lee chose simplicity as the more difficult but satisfying solution.
He composed the film using big, basic contrasts. When Ennis and Jack are together and happy, you see them outdoors, in the most gorgeous natural settings imaginable. (The pictures, by Rodrigo Prieto, are so extraordinary that they almost justify the habits of award voters, who traditionally give cinematography prizes to Best Landscape.) When Ennis and Jack are apart and unhappy, you see them indoors, cramped in unlovely quarters. The contrasts between the two men are similarly bold. Ennis is light-haired, square-faced, mush-mouthed, stolid; Jack is dark-haired, long-faced, talkative, impatient.
So the scheme of the film was made as elemental as the characters themselves--and as open to depths of feeling. Having eliminated all clutter, Ang Lee could allow two extraordinary actors ample time (and unforgettable space) in which to develop an emotional interplay that is all but unknown in today's movies, and that carries you right through Brokeback Mountain.
Another new archetype for the screen, this one so basic that it doesn't even include actors: the closing shot of Brokeback Mountain, which cuts the screen in half. On the right, glimpsed through a mobile home's window, is a patch of western landscape. On the left is a shadowy closet--a shrine, actually--holding a lover's relic. Nothing could be simpler. Nothing could say more.