Canadian writer Jonathan Kay wrote this for the National Post today:
Brokeback Mountain, Heath Ledger's masterpiece, has been Youtubed, South Parked, Family Guyed and Saturday Night Lived so many times, that it is sometimes difficult to recall what an astonishingly good film it was. Had Brokeback been the only film he'd ever made, we would still properly be mourning the loss of one of the world's great actors.
Brokeback is too often pigeon-holed as a gay love story. (Wikipedia describes it as "an Academy Award-winning 2005 romantic drama film that depicts the complex romantic and sexual relationship between two men in the American West from 1963 to 1983.") But the homosexuality in the movie was incidental to a larger theme: the random cruelty of the human condition, a condition that allows outside forces to destroy the lives of even the toughest men.
In the case of Ennis del Mar (Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), the force that destroyed them was in their genes: They were gay men living in a homophobic world. When they were true to their love, they lived in a tiny snowglobe of ecstasy. But everywhere else, they were lonely men living a lie.
Some of the most exquisite vignettes from the movie come when those two world collide. Three years after seeing the movie, I still remember the brief scene when Jack shows up for seasonal work at Brokeback x97 hoping to see Ennis again x97 and is turned away in humiliating fashion by the rancher who knew their secret. ("You boys sure found a way to make the time pass up there. Twist, you guys wasn't gettin' paid to leave the dogs babysittin' the sheep while you stem the rose.") Outwardly, these men are the very embodiment of western ruggedness x97 especially Ennis, whose bar-fight brutality escalates in accordance with the shame he feels about his sexuality. But inside, they are train wrecks. And Ang Lee deserved the Best Director awards he got for letting that wreckage play out without any sort of deus ex machina or romantic Hollywood gloss.
But the wreckage in the film is not really about gay love, or even love itself. It is about powerlessness. Fiddle with the plot, and it would be easy for artists of equal caliber to make essentially the same film about men addicted to alcohol, or drugs, or gambling, or suffering illness, or who fall hopelessly in love with the wrong woman. When Jack famously says to Ennis " I wish I knew how to quit you," the you could be anything.
This is why so many people who aren't gay, and care nothing for Western vistas and cowboy flicks, were so affected by Brokeback. None of us have control of our lives. The movie is about whatever uncontrollable force we stay up at night worrying about. As in every great film, we read ourselves into it.
In my particular case, Brokeback became a film about failed fatherhood. Both Ennis and Jack marry and have kids. Jack manages to cobble together an outwardly respectable middle-class family life, even as his marriage deteriorates into a business relationship. But Ennis can't manage the act, and his life spirals into poverty and dysfunctionality as he throws everything away for the few chances he gets be with Jack. In one scene x97 the one that will leap into my mind every time I think of Ledger's acting career x97 Ennis barges into the grocery store where his wife has taken a job to make ends meet. He's got the kids with him, and tells his wife Cassie she's got to mind them so he can go off on one of his short-notice "fishing trips" with Jack. He shoves the bewildered kids at his wife and then takes off. Everything about him shows that he knows that what he's doing is wrong, irresponsible, bizarre x97 but he can't fight it any more than a heroin junkie can fight the needle.
It's a wrenching scene that plays to every man's worst fears about his own abilities as a father. Will he do right by his wife and children x97 provide for them, stick around, be a role model x97 come what may? Or will forces outside of his control x97 or controllable only with a willpower he cannot muster x97 conspire to make him a failure? That's the scene that broke me. And it did so because Ledger was a brilliant enough actor to sell it.
The circumstances of Ledger's death this week are murky. We don't know yet whether he committed suicide with sleeping pills, or merely took too many of them, in the wrong combination, by accident. But the interviews he gave in late 2007 suggest a tormented man x97 to the point he could barely sleep. I don't want to psychoanalyze a man I don't know, or proffer facile analogies between his own life and that of his signature screen character. But when I heard the news of Ledger's death, my mind immediately reached to Ennis' grim outlook on life. However, successful, or happy, or tough a lot of us may be on the outside, there is always x97 always x97 a vulnerability within that threatens to drag us down.
In Ledger's case, whatever it was took with it not only a man many decades too young to die, but an extraordinary actor who rendered one of the truly great screen acting performances of his generation.