Friday, August 13, 2010
Director: Ang Lee
Writers: Larry McMurtry, Diana Ossana, Annie Proulx
Photography: Rodrigo Prieto
Cast: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Linda Cardellini, Anna Faris, Anne Hathaway, Michelle Williams, Randy Quaid, Roberta Maxwell, Peter McRobbie
Ang Lee's gay cowboy western romance is an always interesting and often unpredictable mix of the general and the highly specific. First, obviously, it addresses the ways that denial and repression brought on by social pressure and stigmas associated with being gay or otherwise "other," whether internalized or imposed from without, only compound and literally worsen everything for everyone. This falls under the category of "the general," but the picture is highly effective in getting at something that is too often maddeningly elusive, particularly with regard to those who will not see. This, in fact, may be its single greatest strength. Ennis Del Mar (played by Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) meet as two lonely young Westerners scratching out a living in 1963, taking a summer-long job working together in Wyoming tending a herd of sheep. They fall in love, neither one able to handle what has happened to them. "I ain't no queer," Ennis tells Jack the day after their first sexual encounter. "Me neither," says Jack. But this one summer would prove to be the idyll that neither of them could forget, and that both longed to return to for the rest of their lives. After it is over, Ennis will marry his sweetheart Alma a few months later and then father two girls with her. Jack, for his part, knocks around the rodeo circuit awhile before marrying and settling down in Texas. A few years after their summer they are seemingly locked into their life choices. Then Jack looks up Ennis and almost immediately they take up where they left off, and both are overwhelmed and shaken by the depths of their feelings. From then on, even as their families come to suspect them and it leads to numerous problems in their lives, they continue to meet once or twice or three times a year for a few days or a week at a time. It is heartbreaking to watch time escaping them, to see them aging, with both feeling so trapped by their circumstances. And here is where the story becomes highly specific, not just some by-the-numbers quasi-Sirk melodrama of gay love frustrated, but a story of two specific individuals in love, making specific choices and suffering specific consequences. In that regard, though it is to everyone's credit that they attempted it, I have to say I'm not entirely convinced. I don't trust, for one thing, that screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana or director Ang Lee or short story writer Annie Proulx actually know enough to make the movie work on the level of specificity they intend. But that's only hindsight, after multiple viewings began to produce a sneaking feeling of hollowness, and me trying to put my finger on the reasons. I continue to be surprised often by how much of it does work—the performances of Gyllenhaal and particularly Ledger are subtle, complex, and brilliant, it's a beautiful thing to look at, and its heart (and politics) is in the right place, which I count as a plus.