Brokeback Mountain

Jake Gyllenhaal (left) and Heath Ledger (right) star in Ang Lee’s BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN.
A Focus Features release. Photo Credit: Kimberly French

The quiet, weathered Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) steps off a semi truck, having hitched a ride into a small Wyoming town looking for work. Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), green and loquacious, pulls into the same stop in a beaten up, black truck. They’re waiting for Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid), a local rancher whom they hope is hiring. A sign on the door of the cabin behind them reads, “Trespassers will be shot. Survivors will be shot again.”

When Ennis introduces himself only by his first name, Jack wryly replies, “Your folks just stop at Ennis?” Immediately, through this interaction, two diametrically opposite characters are introduced. Ennis is, of course, as quiet as he is complicated. He hides a degree of uncertainty and distrust in his squinted, angular eyes. Jack’s softer, almost cherubic composition suggests he’s optimistic, outgoing and, consequently, a bit naïve.

Last year, Aguirre tells them, he had twenty-five percent of his stock lost to predators in the area. He needs a competent camp tender and a herder. As they take to the rolling hills near the base of Brokeback Mountain, they form a close friendship. Eventually, they become tired of the supplies Aguirre’s men send them. Jack gets the brilliant idea of perhaps shooting one of the sheep. Ennis retorts, “We’re supposed to protect the sheep, not eat them.”

They relate their life stories to one another. Jack likes rodeo. His father never attended to him very much. Ennis’ father, on the other hand, was overbearing—trying to make Ennis into his vision of a “man.” That is, until his father died from apparent stupidity. Ennis observes of his parents, “One curve in the road in 43 miles and they miss it.”

Their discussions about religion touch on the concept of sin, but the extent of their fascination with religion ends humorously on the difference between the Pentecostal and Methodist denominations—between which neither can really differentiate. Not long thereafter, on a particularly cold night, Jack asks Ennis to join him in the only slightly warmer tent. And this is where culminates the meaning of the myriad sideways glances and solemn stares scattered throughout the preceding scenes.

When Ennis takes Jack, it’s as agressive as any passionate, lustful heterosexual scene. And this is where I’ll pause on a thought… I asked myself at some point later the film, “Where are the scenes that would show their psychological relationship unfolding? Why, every time they get together, does it seem all they have time for is passionate physical embraces, perhaps sex, and a little bit of catching up on family affairs?” My own answer to that is twofold: 1) Ennis and Jack met in Wyoming in 1963, in a time and place that didn’t afford them much opportunity to let a relationship unfold to that stage. 2) Consequently, we’re seeing the beginning of a relationship… and most, if not all, relationships begin with passion, even lust… or, if you prefer, physical attraction.

Does that make this, as numerous critics have labeled it, a “gay cowboy movie?” No. David Edelstein wrote, “Ang Lee’s formalism is so extreme that it’s often laughable, and the sex is depicted as a holy union: Gay love has never been so sacred.” While I respect Edelstein’s powers of observation to tremendous degree, I must disagree with his comments.

Ang Lee has approached this film in, yes, more hushed tones… Perhaps Ang is aware that a more radical film would be tantamount to preaching unto the choir, whilst flogging a dead horse, and attracting no interest from people with opposing perspectives. Whatever the case may be, I could not find an ounce of fat in Larry McMurtry’s and Diana Ossana’s shooting script, or the cinematography, or the editing.

Jack and Ennis are called back to the ranch a month early. Aguirre reasons there’s a much larger storm coming than the snowfall that hit unexpectedly. This devastates Jack and Ennis, but they must go on with their lives. Ennis marries a young woman, Alma (Michelle Williams), of whom we don’t know much except that she isn’t enough to keep Ennis’ mind off Jack. Jack eventually scrapes together enough to get into the rodeo circuit, where he meets Lureen Newsome (Anne Hathaway). He snags her hat as she blows past the gate on horseback.

Revisiting Edelstein’s remarks: Ennis’ sex with Alma is impassionate not because it’s straight sex… but because he clearly doesn’t love her. Should it have made a difference if his real love were another woman? Jack’s sex with Lureen is passionate, initially, but their relationship also disintegrates for largely the same reason. Both Jack and Ennis are living lies, and had they been honest with themselves, they wouldn’t have put themselves or their families through this… which isn’t to say they are entirely to blame for what their wives suffer. Neither Alma nor Lureen strike me as women who seem willing to accept the truth—much less confront it.

Consider a scene in which Alma catches Jack and Ennis kissing by the laundromat beneath their apartment, yet never mentions it. The stability of marriage is too important to her. This makes several intriguing statements at once. Ennis treats Alma no differently than many chauvinists of the decade. He’s still a good ol’ boy living in Bumblefuck, Wyoming, the 60’s and 70’s… As we see from the way he rushes out on Alma to go “fishing” with Jack, his priorities aren’t only driven by a scalding desire to be with Jack, but also by the fact that he’s basically a chauvinist.

A product of his place and time, Ennis loathes himself for loving Jack. The mere insinuation is enough to catapult the otherwise stoic Ennis into a rage. That fact is perhaps the most shattering character element of the film. Gay or straight, I don’t think Ennis is the openly, publicly affectionate type. The tragedy here is that he is tortured inside by an entirely unnecessary guilt. Self-acceptance never occurs to him.

Jack and Ennis eventually have children, but they continue to sneak away once or twice a year to see each other. It continues for many years until circumstances sever their chances at any meaningful long-term relationship. To demonstrate the subtle beauty of this film, the kind that doesn’t mark time by title cards or overt refences to period, there’s a scene in which Ennis’ daughter, now nineteen, visits and tells him she’s going to marry. Ennis’ only concern is, “Does he love you?”

It took me some time to find a connection with the main characters. However, I discovered various anchors and parallels to experiences of my own… One in particular stands out: Toward the last quarter of the film, Jack expresses frustration, not understanding why they simply cannot find a place and live for the rest of their lives, together.

A few years ago, my fiancée and I were separated for six months while working through immigration paperwork—she in Alberta, and I in Minnesota. It was one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do… Patience is not my strongest attribute. At that time, our relationship was still maturing, and so the infatuation and lust were still driving a large part of our desire to be together. Nearly six years later, married for four, my wife and I love each other for who we really are, and not who we perceive the other to be.

I became so engrossed in the aforementioned scene, I didn’t notice it was immediately followed by a flashback. Maybe I blinked at the transition. You’d think the disappearing mustache would have cued me in.

Speaking of disappearing mustaches, how about disappearing actors? If actors do their job well, we shouldn’t notice the acting. Heath Ledger transforms himself entirely into the rugged, stalwart Ennis. In contrast to Strathairn’s magnificent turn as the ratiocinative Edward R. Murrow in “Good Night, and Good Luck,” Ledger had the task of embodying a character who doesn’t exist… someone for whom there aren’t umpteen-million historical records to give us backstory. Is the performance Oscar-bait? Sure it is. But it’s restrained Oscar-bait. This will sound a bizarre reference, but when I first saw Ledger in the clever, entertaining “Ten Things I Hate About You,” I knew that he had the ability to inhabit a character entirely while still enjoying himself in the process.

There are also excellent performances from Gyllenhaal, Williams and Hathaway. Gyllenhaal, as we’ve seen in “Donnie Darko,” has the ability to look beleaguered and/or dejected beyond his years. Williams is perfect in a scene where, after Alma and Ennis have divorced, she confronts him about his and Jack’s “fishing” trips. Hathaway carries the right pitch in one scene where, while handling her family’s lucrative farm equipment business, she trails off in a comically-frustrated mumble as Jack’s packing yet again to see Ennis.

Some critics of this film only see it as a gay cowboy, or gay cowboy sex film because they can’t see any of the possible epilogues to what’s contained in this film, which is itself guided by a short story written by Annie Proulx, originally published in The New Yorker, October 13, 1997. What could become of Jack and Ennis? That’s what you have to ask yourself. Would it be as interesting to make a movie about Jack and Ennis doing their taxes, paying their bills, taking their kids to school?

Ang Lee has crafted a film in which I can find not a single flaw, unless I deliberately and laboriously try to identify them (in which case one can find any flaw they wish). In its sparsity, it works, because it doesn’t need to be about anything else than Jack and Ennis’ love for one another.

Inevitable comparisons will be drawn to the relationship between Joe Buck (Jon Voight) and his beloved, if disheveled, sidekick Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), in 1969’s “Midnight Cowboy,” which was the first X-rated film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. However, I’d like to make a less obvious comparison. In Ayn Rand’s polemic against collectivism, “Anthem,” the protagonist, Equality 7-2521 is followed into exile by a girl to whom he refers as “The Golden One,” which is a transgression in his society as they are forbidden from exalting any relationship above any other.

In chapter nine, explaining why she followed him into the forest, to be damned with him, the Golden One says, “”Your eyes are as a flame, but our brothers have neither hope nor fire. Your mouth is cut of granite, but our brothers are soft and humble. Your head is high, but our brothers cringe. You walk, but our brothers crawl. We wish to be damned with you, rather than blessed with all our brothers. Do as you please with us, but do not send us away from you.” The dialogue between them, which I encourage you to read if you have not, could be easily imagined as an exchange between Jack and Ennis.

The fierce passion described in so many words by the notoriously elaborate Rand is in stark contrast to the spartan dialogue of “Brokeback Mountain.” However, what Rand relates in so many words, McMurtry, Ossana and Lee have conveyed in raw images and emotions. I use the word “raw” not to describe the terse state of their romance, but the fundamentality of the scene composition. Shots of open expanses with sloping hills, intercut with close-ups of facial expressions, depict an isolation shared by them that doesn’t need more thematic/cinematic elements to clutter its message.

In his “Great Movie” review of Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2,” Roger Ebert wrote, “A filmmaker who prefers ideas to images will never advance above the second rank because he is fighting the nature of his art. The printed word is ideal for ideas; film is made for images, and images are best when they are free to evoke many associations and are not linked to narrowly defined purposes.”

With this observation in mind, I asked Ang Lee to identify some of his favorite “pure” images, images that are designed with the sole purpose of inviting questions rather than providing answers. Among the selections Lee cited, he mentioned a shot from “Brokeback Mountain.” After they return from Brokeback to the ranch, and say their goodbyes, Ennis walks into an alley and crumbles to his knees, vomiting, tears streaming down his face. This is the first moment where the viewer witnesses the dichotomy of Ennis’ emotions. He may be ill because he cannot bear the thought of being apart from Jack, or perhaps he cannot stand that he feels so passionately about Jack. Both are true, but the latter is the more fascinating end of the equation. Being gay in 1963 may have been extraordinarily difficult, but living a lie is entirely crippling to anyone, in any period.

When I reflected on this film the morning after seeing it, my mind kept going back to something a friend once told me. I was in the middle of a job I hated, and he was my co-worker. He understood why, and he didn’t hold it against me. Instead, he encouraged me to seek out something for which I have greater passion. “As you get older, life starts making decisions for you,” he said. That was five years ago. Earlier this year I had come to learn he died of a heart attack.

For me, “Brokeback Mountain” is ultimately about the paralysis of regret and how it fractures the lives of not just those afflicted by it, but everyone else around them. The official site has a link where audiences can share their experiences about the film. Having read some of those stories, and having been exposed in my midwest upbringing to prejudices and bigotry of various kinds—amplified by geographical and cultural isolation—I would not expect Jack and Ennis’ story to be much different if it were repeated today.

Religious conservatives who criticize films like this for disintegrating marriage and family are missing the point entirely. If people did according to their natures, yes, many families that are would never have been…

… but many families that never were, could be.

Brokeback Mountain • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 • Running Time: 134 minutes • MPAA Rating: R for sexuality, nudity, language and some violence. • Distributed by Focus Features

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  • Fei Meng – Austin, TX

    Just one thing bothered me about your review of Brokeback Mountain. I’m always bothered when people don’t get details right when they write about them, and the detail that was wrong in your review happens to be significant since you try to make an important point with it.

    In the final scene where 19-year-old Alma asks her father to attend her wedding, “Does he love you?” is not the “only question” that Ennis asks. He probably did ask that question, but he asked another question that’s much more relevant to your point and much more truly and brilliantly shows Ennis’s regret: He asks Alma, “How long have you known him?” or something to that effect, and she answers in a gee-whiz sort of way, “About a year, Dad.” The subtext will be obvious to smart viewers, and it’s a bit cliché for this kind of story, but it really works because of the spell that the film has cast upon its audience by this point.

    I don’t know if you remembered that part of the dialogue, but based on my understanding of your point, I think that the above quote serves it better. I just wanted to bring that to your attention.

    I’ve changed the wording to more appropriately reflect my meaning.
    – Rubin

  • Brad L. –

    What a beautifully written piece. Thank you.

  • Paul

    Great review; it brought up a few things I hadn’t thought about while watching the film.