So the timeless tale of prejudice and star-crossed love centers on gay cowboys this time, fine. And granted, Gyllenhaal and Ledger's performances are self-aware and, often, kind of awkward. Ledger mumbles, avoids eye contact and often seems as though he's trying to force each fist through the bottom of his pants pockets like an antsy child who's trying to ignore being scolded. Gyllenhaal poses, affecting the rough-neck swagger of a bull rider. It's never totally convincing, there's always a little something in the gleam of his eye that gives him away. Like Ledger, Gyllenhaal's faking it. Trying to pass.
It'd be easiest to chalk that up to poor preparation or whatever. What's harder to see at first, though, is that the glint in Jack Twist the bull rider's eye isn't the actor Jake Gyllenhaal peaking out, it's the real Jack Twist. Gyllenhaal and Ledger are actors playing actors, people who have been conditioned to hate what they are to such an extent that they try and hide it at all costs - from themselves at first. Then, once they begin to come to grips with it personally, the need to appear straight to others - given their place in the world - becomes even more urgent. It becomes a matter of life and death.
Enis Delmar's natural reaction is to turn inward, speaking few words and making little eye contact. He wants to pass unnoticed, just one man among many. Jack Twist plays it differently. He jumps headfirst into the roll, like a high school drama kid. He wants the spotlight, the lead role. He wants to be a cowboy archetype. This is, ultimately, what attracts Enis to him, and is, ultimately, the flaw that undoes him. Both performances the intense self-reflection and societal unease that accompanies being taught to hate the person you naturally are.
If the female leads (Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway predominantly, but also Kate Mara and Roberta Maxwell) in the film give more natural and traditionally compelling performances, it's because they're playing people who have no reason to hide their real selves. Being sure of themselves, though, doesn't in anyway abate their confusion and consternation about the relationship swirling around Jack and Enis. You can see this confusion behind every tear, every smile, every pat on the shoulder. Given different circumstances and a different upbringing, Alma Del Mar (Williams) would have been able to show far more compassion. Lureen Newsome (Hathaway), you get the sense, would do what she does regardless of her environment.
In all it's a stunning and gorgeous portrait of the disparate ways people deal with the unknown and the misunderstood, both within themselves and others, the ways in which people cope with being taught to hate and distrust the thing they naturally are and the doggedly human way we search for the right people. It's an incredibly sad tale, a cautionary tale, really, and a plea above all else to seek out and understand ourselves and others.