Ang Lee's film Brokeback Mountain is based on a 10,000-word short story by E Annie Proulx. While almost all the scenes from the original story have been included in the film, scriptwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana have fleshed out the supporting characters, resulting in a movie that is wonderfully layered.
Alas, you can't depend on the dialogue to follow the story. Between the Texan drawl and the tortured mumble of high granite country, there will be parts - sometimes critical moments - when you can't catch what they're saying.
So, before you step into the cinema, you're advised to either read Proulx's short story, or do a web search for other movie reviews that take the trouble to sketch the whole story out for you. There are plenty out there.
But wouldn't knowing the ending be a spoiler? Not really. By now, with all that has been written about this movie, we all know that this love cannot but end in tears - and anyway, something has told you to bring a box of tissues. So who needs suspense?
Yet, the story is not all there is. There are beautiful elements through the film that you should look out for that will enhance your appreciation of the actors', director's and scriptwriters' craft, as well as the almost elegiac quality in Proulx's narrative.
Here are eight tips:
1. The shirts and the bloodstains
Unless forewarned, you'd normally not pay any attention to the shirts and jackets the men wear when they're up on Brokeback Mountain herding sheep. Nor would you normally note where the blood is smeared. But do, and you'll be richly rewarded, for a stained shirt and a jacket will feature again at the end of the movie. Pay attention too to how Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) says, "I can't believe I left my shirt up on the mountain" at the end of the herding season in 1963.
2. The two very different lovemaking scenes
The first time Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar have sex, it's all urgent grabbing and animal grunting. They don't look into each other's eyes. The next morning, Ennis mumbles, "I'm no queer." Jack replies, "Me neither."
The second time they do it, there is a tenderness that tells us this is not sex anymore, but the beginning of romance. Marvel at how the director has conceived of these two different scenes, and how well the two actors have delivered them.
3. The first parting
The difference between the two male characters start showing up very early in the story, despite similar down-and-out circumstances and the common Marlboro Man swagger that was the expected standard for the time. But it's at the first parting, after the sheep have come down, that that difference is played out. Jack Twist tears up as he drives away, aware of what he may be losing, even as he was unable to articulate his feelings in his last conversation with Ennis.
But Ennis stays in denial, believing he can turn his back on that summer and on himself. Yet it hits him when he's least expecting it, punching him in the gut, doubling him over. Watch out for that moment and feel it in your gut too.
4. Outbursts and fatherhood
Count how many times Ennis Del Mar loses control of himself and bursts into violence at the slightest provocation. Count how many times Jack Twist absorbs provocation. Why the difference?
Yet, even Jack has a limit, as one scene shows.
On the other hand, for all the self-control, which one proved the better father? Which family was more whole?
5. Alma, Ennis' wife
And yet, she heals, and though divorced, she continues to speak kindly to Ennis.
6. Lureen and Jack.
Lureen Newsome is the Texan girl whom Jack marries. Her character development is equally wonderful to watch. Played by Anne Hathaway, she starts off as a vivacious rodeo queen but soon after marriage, and I'll leave you to figure out when that is, she realises that Jack is not what he appears to be. Like Alma, she keeps it all in, but unlike Alma, the dam never bursts. Her character becomes more and more steely with time. It's marvelous observing the face, the hairstyle and the speech pattern change. The dam comes close to bursting when Ennis has his one and only telephone conversation with her, but except for a squeaky tightness in the throat, she still keeps it in.
Jack's character matures too. He gains in self-confidence, and is sometimes even suave. He leads a double life, but you can see that unlike Ennis, he is far more comfortable with his own skin. Yet he knows his life will never be whole without Ennis. There's that moment when he comes rushing up to Riverton, Wyoming, upon learning that Alma has divorced Ennis, perhaps thinking, at last, Ennis is free to be with me. That's a scene you must not miss. Watch actor Jake Gyllenhaal's eyes.
7. To dream
One of the biggest contrasts between Jack and Ennis' characters is that Jack allows himself to dream, but Ennis does not. In his boyhood days, Jack dreamt about riding rodeo - and watch out for a reference to this in one of the ending scenes. Later, he dreams of sharing a life with Ennis in a cabin and ranch somewhere.
But Ennis only speaks of things he must do. And yet, can you blame him? He's always living from hand to mouth, with two daughters to support. What would you have done in his place?
Alright, maybe you can understand that, but Ennis doesn't even allow himself to cry. Even at the moment of greatest heartbreak, he stays in control. Isn't it infuriating, you ask?
8. The senselessness
So, the simple narrative you know. It ends in tragedy, but even tragedy is layered. Throughout the two hours 14 minutes, watch the people around them, particularly their families. In the 1960s and 1970s, there were no words to talk about homosexuality, so you have to look out for facial expressions, pregnant pauses and silent gestures.
The two of them, Ennis especially, thought it was non-negotiable that their relationship should remain a secret. They could not let others know. Yet you get the sense that eventually, everybody else figured it out. Some even demonstrated the potential to accept. And that's why, when the movie ends, you're left doubly desolate.
Brokeback Mountain Charity Premiere
in benefit of Action for AIDS Singapore
Date: 8 Feb 2006 (Wednesday)
Time: 9 pm
Venue: Shaw Lido One
Tickets: $60, $30
Book your tickets and/or donate to Action for AIDS by clicking the link below.