Harrison Ford often tells a story about a Columbia executive who reviewed one of Ford's early screen tests. "Look," said the Columbia exec, "a star has PRESENCE. When Tony Curtis first walked onscreen carrying a bag of groceries -- a bag of groceries! -- you took one look at him and said, 'THAT'S a movie star!'"
"That's funny," Ford said. "I thought you were supposed to think he was delivering groceries."
In the early shots of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, the two protagonists, in need of work, are waiting around the outside of a ranch office for the owner to show up. Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) tucks his head down under the brim of his hat and leans against a wall; he stands on one foot with the other pushing into the wall behind him. Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) steps out of his old pick-up and leans against the vehicle, stretching out. And I laughed.
I laughed because they looked ridiculous. They didn't look casual; they looked posed. They weren't trying to relax, but to look dramatic; Gyllenhaal came off the worst, because he didn't lean on the truck like a redneck, but like he was Jake Gyllenhaal playing redneck for a Vanity Fair cover shoot.
They looked, in short, like movie stars. The movie went on from there.
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN starts off badly and improves as it goes along. It's not a bad movie, but it's too long and parts of it are unfortunately weak. Some of this can be laid at the feet of Annie Proulx's original story, in which the early stages of the relationship between Ennis and Jack are attenuated; the reader is told about their relationship to each other, but little is shown, probably because Proulx was eager to skip to her second act. Screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, who had to dramatize the burgeoning friendship and courtship, couldn't get away with that. The problem is that the movie doesn't do enough of it. There's a lot of idyllic scenery, and sheep footage, and little scenes with Ennis and Jack that don't do much of anything. The beginning of the movie drags horribly, and that's a major weakness, because this is the only time that the movie has to sell us, and Ennis, on Jack.
Jack's the key to the thing, because he's the character who doesn't actually lose anything by loving Ennis. Living a double life is difficult for Ennis, who says in a bit of Proulx's dialogue that was kept, "If you can't fix it, you gotta stand it." Jack, meanwhile, keeps his marriage, prospers, and manages to get out from under the thumb of his domineering father-in-law; he'd prefer to live with Ennis, but his anguish over not being able to is all that he suffers. (The film is ambiguous over whether Jack's sexual interest in men, which he sometimes let show too publicly over the years, led to his untimely death or whether Ennis, whose father instilled him with a lasting terror of violent death by showing him the corpse of a gay man who had been lynched, merely imagines it that way.) What I mean is that while Jack suffers, his circumstances do not. Ennis, meanwhile, loses his marriage and his children and (rather oddly; more on this later) a number of career prospects. Jack doesn't give up anything for Ennis, although he says he would; Ennis, meanwhile, gives up a hell of a lot to keep as much of Jack as he has. Which means the movie has to sell us Jack: we have to fall in love with him a little, too.
That's a lot to count on Jake Gyllenhaal for. And he doesn't deliver. It's not all his fault, although his performance suffers terribly in comparison with that of Ledger, who slumps and grunts and hides behind his hat in a convincing and often gently endearing portrayal of a shy, taciturn man. Gyllenhaal's Jack comes off as merely pretty, amiable, and dim. Gyllenhaal portrays Jack's weakness very well, but not his attractiveness in the more-than-physical sense -- which is, after all, what we're being asked to buy, or there's no reason to believe the affair would persist beyond the one sheep-herding season on Brokeback.
I think the beginning scenes need to be more of a courtship than they are: Jack has to charm Ennis out of his shell. But he doesn't; when Ennis opens up, it's more by default than anything else. The scene in which Jack re-enacts the glories of the rodeo -- without benefit of horse, or steer, or lariat, or audience larger than one -- comes the closest to being what the story needs, but Jack would be more likeable if his self-mockery were more clearly deliberate, rather than horseplay. When he falls down, it's funny, but when Ennis makes fun of it he's making a friendly joke at Jack's expense, rather than being reluctantly drawn into Jack's joking -- a subtle distinction, but important if you want to show how Jack is leading him to open up. I think Jack would have worked better as a nervous blue-streak talker, a little closer to Anna Faris's LaShawn Malone, who appears briefly later in the film to excellent comic effect. At any rate, the first act of the film definitely needed better narrative flow, needed to be a story in its own right: the story of Jack getting Ennis to open up, followed by the twist (so to speak) of their sleeping together.
The movie gets better once Jack and Ennis come down off the mountain. The men drift apart, live separate lives, and eventually find each other again only to find that their desire for each other hasn't died. The performances of Anne Hathaway and especially Michelle Williams as their relatively small roles as the mens' respective wives are very strong; Williams is absolutely terrific, and the movie's portrayal of the toll on her of her husband's not-so-secret life is one of its best parts. It also makes for some puzzling bits. Ennis rules out the prospect of a life with Jack in part because of his duties, but when he has the chance for a steady job with the power company that can bring in money to support his family he shies away from the prospect -- and he quits the jobs he does get so he can run away with Jack for a weekend when the mood strikes him. So he loses the marriage. That's a problem, and the movie doesn't quite solve it: he loves his wife and kids enough to give up all but brief moments with the love of his life... but not enough to support them?
Also worth noting: while Jack is the one with money, on their outings Ennis is always the one who shows up with the (presumably rented) horses. Not a cheap outlay for a guy in dire financial straits. By contrast, the set decoration is spare and rings very true, especially in contrast to the inexplicably posh furnishings and innumerable tchochkes many other movies (including serious contemporary dramas) present.
Still, as the movie follows the men through the years, it only improves. The men take different paths, with Ennis falling into a deeper and deeper financial hole while denying his desires and Jack getting richer and more secure while indulging himself in Mexico and elsewhere, and this is where I really came to be interested in them. As in Proulx's original, the story and characterization improve toward the end. The later scenes are best, particularly for Gyllenhaal, who tries to coast on being pretty for far too much of the picture. He's at his best the last time we see Jack, midlife crisis and all: the character has aged, courtesy of subtle makeup and a moustache that looks terrible but should, and so fits; and in that make-up, for the first time, Gyllenhall really leaves his looks behind and lets Jack be a small and frightened man.
Brokeback Mountain isn't the magnificent filmmaking achievement it's been sold as, or the great gay romance it's being hyped as. Frankly, given the outcome, it's quite possible that it could be interpreted as a cautionary tale. Ennis causes terrible anguish to his wife, then loses his family and winds up dirt poor except for the love of his daughter; Jack turns to an ever more dissolute and incautious existence, and possibly ends up dead for it. But it's a good movie with some fine performances and nice cinematography, and there's a good chance it'll be rewarded at Oscar time.