The new film from director Ang Lee, adapted by Lee and co-screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana from an E. Annie Proulx short story is a well-made and ambitious film about a sensitive and controversial subject. The ambition is admirable, but along the way the story is reduced to a forced and formulaic melodrama that wouldn't have seemed out of place among the "women's weepies" of the 1940s, except for the gender of the two leads.
To get the controversy out of the way at the outset, the unusual aspect of this story of a love repressed and frustrated by social convention is that the two lovers are a pair of cowboys who meet as teenagers and then carry on their love affair sporadically over the next twenty years. They live in unfulfilling marriages and dead-end jobs the monotony of which is broken only by their periodic trysts.
But except for the fact that Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) are both male - and not only male, but the manliest of American Male Archetypes, Cowboys - the story might have been a plot for Douglas Sirk. For a film that has aspirations of being "groundbreaking" it is amazing how little real risk it takes.
For one thing, the film is coy about the characters' sexuality. The camera fades out or pans away with a sense of modesty tempered by titillation more typical of 1950s films whenever the subject of actual physical sexuality rears its head. There are a couple of prolonged kisses and a brief suggestion of incipient sodomy, but for the most part the presumably overwhelming physical attraction that must be at the heart of the story is given short shrift.
Then, there is the lack of any real tenderness exchanged between the men. It isn't until the very end of the film that Ennis exposes any of the anguish (as opposed to anger) his affection for Jack has cost him and then he does so not to Jack, but to others. It is hard to imagine a relationship of such emotional and psychological difficulty sustained over two decades on a few days each year of really hot sex - especially when we don't get any real sense of a compelling physical connection between the two leads - without a strong sense of caring and understanding. Yet Lee and his co-screenwriters never manage to establish either connection.
And it doesn't really help that Lee has cast as his leads two of Hollywood's rising leading (presumably heterosexual) men. The idea of these good-looking twenty-somethings baring their pecs and abs for the audience may appeal to some admirers of the male physique (of both genders), but in places it makes the film look uncomfortably like a parody of a Calvin Klein ad. In many films that center on relationships we speak of the chemistry between the lead actors, and quite frankly, in this case the physical and emotional "heat" between them just isn't there.
Love stories are difficult to pull off. It is too easy for them to devolve into melodrama without a clear-eyed and unsentimental approach. Lee, McMurtry and Ossana don't manage to personalize the story here and instead fall back on a series of clichés that range from the manipulative wife who "doesn't understand" and can't offer emotional fulfillment to the overbearing father-in-law.
There's also a homophobic range boss and Ennis's traumatic flashbacks to his father's brutal "bogey-man" condemnation of homosexuality. These elements are supposed to explain the tortured course the relationship takes and the anguish that ensues, but in fact they never take on much resonance either with the audience nor with the characters themselves.
And there is the fact that this is a story that starts in the 1960s and continues for a couple of decades. Is it possible that even in the farthest hollows of the Rocky Mountains there were people who were so out of touch that they hadn't heard - by the late 1970s at least - of San Francisco, Greenwich Village, the Stonewall Riot and Gay Pride? Could Ennis's terror at the possible consequences of admitting his sexual preferences have survived the mass self-outing of those decades?
It doesn't seem likely, and the film's steadfast refusal to deal with the burgeoning of gay consciousness (including a National Gay Rodeo Association that held its first event in Reno NV in 1976) swirling around the main characters gives it a contrived and artificial feel. Lee has described the film as "a love story," but genuine, believable love between Ennis and Jake is something he never really manages to evoke.
Yet the film strives mightily. As I said above, it is very well-made, with a sense of cinematic sweep that uses the untamed wilderness and skies of its locations as a counterpoint to the restrictions the characters impose on themselves. The sense of place as both hostile and hospitable, magical and monotonous is strongly underlined by camera-work and perspectives designed by Lee and his Cinematographer Rogrigo Prieto that emphasize the boundlessness of Ennis and Jack's shared back-country in contrast with the claustrophobic drabness of Ennis's life, and the plastic, suburban nightmare of Jack's.
As in all of the movies Lee has directed, the production values are generally excellent. The original score by Gustavo Santaolalla - mostly melancholy solo guitar lines - is understated and effective. The soundtrack includes a raft of evocative songs by performers ranging from Bob Dylan, Rufus Wainwright and Emmylou Harris to Willie Nelson, Steve Earle and Linda Ronstadt, which are used thoughtfully.
The sets - those that aren't the spectacular natural landscapes of the West (the Canadian Rockies of Manitoba double for Colorado) - are well designed and dressed - from Jack's showplace suburban home to Ennis's cramped and cluttered apartment, to Joe Aguirre's (Randy Quaid) range-management trailer. This background, strongly supports the sense of time and place Lee is trying to create. The one exception seems to be the lack of penetration of any sign of current events into the world of the film, which adds to a sense of unreality and artificiality that in hindsight weakens the film and makes it feel more manipulative.
Heath Ledger does a fine job of representing the taciturn speech and rough mannerisms of those accustomed to solitude. He manages to suggest significant depths in Ennis's character. He only fails to convey the possibility that this gruff, frightened, emotionally distant character he has created could develop the kind of depth of feeling that would sustain a "forbidden" longing for more than twenty years, on the basis of the events we see unfold. Portraying passion in the 'strong, silent type" - whose character is to suppress all signs of passion - is a challenge to which few actors could rise, and although Ledger makes a game effort, he can't always convince.
His most impressive sequence is a visit he pays to Jack's parents toward the end of the film. As he walks through Jack's childhood home and connects for the first time with his family, mostly in silence, Ledger manages to convey a depth of feeling that - although only weakly supported by preceding events - creates the most moving moment in the film.
Jake Gyllenhaal looks more out-of-place in the mountains than Ledger but is more believable as being emotionally available and vulnerable to the lasting effects of his youthful passion. Like Ledger, he goes a long way to getting the character right - toward making him a believable individual. It is only around the issue of the physical and emotional intensity of the relationship - which unfortunately is the lynch-pin of the whole effort - that he begins to appear to be "acting."
The women in the film - Anne Hathaway as Jack's wife Lureen and Michelle Williams as Ennis's wife Alma - are, as I suggested above, largely reduced to cliché. Although both - and especially the sympathetic Williams - create reasonably well-drawn portraits of their characters, their shared ignorance (or, as must be the case, denial) of the meaning of their husbands' twenty-year relationship seems like another contrivance - very unlikely in the years following Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem.
They are like stereotypical "fifties women," sweeping problems under the rug in favor of marital stability. That's something that might have persisted into the sixties and even early seventies, but is hard to credit as ongoing through twenty years over the decades of the seventies and eighties. Yet their response is necessary to the plot, since a full-blooded confrontation would have short-circuited the melodramatic device of the two men "suffering in silence."
The "aging" makeup also did not seem to work. Not only on the main characters, but especially on their wives, who barely seemed to age a day in twenty years, despite the strains of their difficult marriages and child-rearing
While it does seem believable that the perennially poverty-stricken Ennis might have retained the wiry body of his late adolescence, it seems anomalous that self-indulgent, pleasure-loving Jack, ensconced in a cushy desk job and with nothing but his sensuality to console him in the face of Ennis's absence wouldn't have packed on a few pounds over the course of two decades.
The fact the pair retain both their boyish good-looks and their athletic figures into early middle age doesn't do anything to add a layer of gritty reality to what seems to become more and more of a bitter-sweet romantic fantasy along the lines of The Bridges of Madison County as it progresses.
But certainly audiences are entitled to such well-crafted, well-acted melodramas if they want them - and there is no doubt that Ang Lee and his cast and crew deliver. So if the film is not an accurate, psychologically cohesive picture of full-blooded human beings dealing with disruptive core issues of sexual identity and emotional-connectedness in their relationships during times of social upheaval, at least it is a coherent and beautifully realized (if somewhat hollow) dream.