A poetic saga of desire and denial: Brokeback Mountain’s impact on cinema
“Brokeback got us good, don’t it?” – Jack Twist
Typecasting Brokeback Mountain as a “gay cowboy movie” is brutal and unjust to the sheer beauty and vulnerability of the film, as well as the dance of denial and subsequent loss. Ang Lee, who had once considered retirement, was brought back with a bang in his true element by this film which also won him his first Academy Award for ‘Best Director’ in 2006. The film is set in a fictitious yet picturesque location, Brokeback Mountain, and chronicles the lives of two cowboys Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist who are hired by Joe Aguirre in 1963 for sheep-herding. Slowly, the men develop a close, intimate relationship, but the values instilled in them by the heteronormative society prevents them from embracing their true feelings. They part from one another with heavy hearts, only to meet again, four years later. Ennis is married to the young Alma and has children of his own while Jack has a son with the wealthy daughter of a farm businessman, Lureen. Jack and Ennis rekindle their passion and frequently escape on romantic getaways under the pretext of fishing trips. However, the elephant in the room remains unaddressed and Ennis lives to regret his indecisiveness and orthodox nature when Jack meets his fateful ending.
Intimate and emotionally stirring, the film can be evaluated on multiple levels. It is important to note that despite there being quite a few LGBTQ+ films, Brokeback Mountain has cemented its position in cinematic history and is often considered the “go-to gay movie”. The setting of the film is crucial. It begins in the scenic Brokeback Mountains where the rugged terrain is complemented by beautiful skies and occasional torrential downpour. As Lureen later tells Ennis, Jack always described it as a place where “bluebirds sing and there’s a whiskey spring”. That is the place where the two cowboys are allowed to explore unadulterated passion without the fear of being discovered and judged. Unbeknownst to them, they are spied on by Aguirre through his binoculars; he subsequently refuses to employ the men. As they move to the respective cities of Wyoming and Texas, Ennis feels like he is under constant scrutiny. “You ever get the feelin’…I don’t know, er…when you’re in town and… someone looks at you… suspicious, like he knows? And then you go out on the pavement and everyone’s looking at you like they all know too?” His fear stems from a harrowing childhood experience where two gay men were brutally ravaged. His father had taken him and his brother to witness the scene. “My daddy, he made sure me and brother seen it. Hell for all I know, he done the job.”
There is a ubiquitous sexual tension present on-screen. When Ennis undresses to clean himself, the camera focuses on Jack’s face where the intense desire to turn around and look at Ennis’ naked form is evident. It is the extreme cold that pushes the otherwise quiet and conservative Ennis into the arms of the eccentric rodeo, for warmth. In the tent, as they have sex in a drunken and angry stupor, this violent and angry passion is retained throughout the film. The following day, in a heartbreaking scene, Ennis and Jack exchange very few words; Ennis insists on the sexual encounter being “a one-shot thing” and that “you know I ain’t queer”. Jack instantly replies with “me neither”, which stirs debate regarding the men’s sexuality. While the film has been criticised for never mentioning the word ‘gay’, it is important to note that it is the celebration of love which triumphs gender norms and sexuality. Here are two men who have been raised in a patriarchal setup where masculinity has been imposed on them yet they are attracted to one another and seek solace in each other’s arms. The societal repression and archetypal values keep them from being together. They are essentially bisexual as they consensually engage in sexual intercourse with their respective wives, but the passion is somewhat missing. After Jack leaves to find work for the winter, Ennis breaks down in an alley, retching and sobbing inconsolably; it is almost as if Jack left with a part of him, leaving him confused, miserable and heartbroken.
Jack and Ennis meet four years later and engage in a passionate and heated embrace. Their secret fishing trips help them seek warmth in each other which causes a decline in their respective personal lives. This continues for around twenty years, and Jack, being the quintessential romantic dreamer, still harbours the desire to move in with the realist Ennis and build a ranch together. Ennis, divorced and liable to pay child support, still haunted by his childhood experience, refuses. After an intense altercation, Ennis breaks down, sobbing: “Well, why don’t you? Why don’t you just let me be? It’s because of you Jack, that I’m like this! I’m nothin’… I’m nowhere.” The desperation in their voices, as well as the immense desire to be united in love, is palpable. It is, unfortunately, the last time the lovers meet each other as Jack is killed shortly in a freak accident involving tires. However, when Ennis reflects on this information, the brutal scene of Jack being bludgeoned to death creeps into his imagination due to the traumatic events witnessed in his childhood.
The film is tender and moving in its depiction of the women and their reaction. When Alma witnesses the men kissing each other and subsequently going away on a fishing trip, her world is shattered. She does not confront him and engages in sex; however, their marriage deteriorates and it is much later, after she gets hitched again, that she confronts him about the true nature of his relationship with Jack. In a jarring, emotionally-charged scene, as Alma confronts Ennis, she reflects the views of the contemporary society when she does not accuse him of cheating but calls his relationship with Jack “nasty”. To her, homosexuality is sinful and shameful. Lureen is apparently ignorant as she is more focused on minting money. However, after Ennis calls her to ask about Jack, the camera zooms in on Anne Hathaway’s face where the tears in Lureen’s proud eyes are enough to convince the audience that realisation finally dawns on her. She informs him how Jack wanted his ashes to be scattered in Brokeback Mountain, which, according to her, was a “pretend place”.
On Lureen’s confirmation, Ennis visits Jack’s parents where he finds his bloodstained shirt in Jack’s closet. In a moment of epiphany, Ennis ponders over his missed chances which led him to lose his loved one. Seeing Jack’s shirt draped over his own, he reflects on the warmth and comfort the former had provided on the lonely and cold nights atop Brokeback. The shirts are seen hanging once again in his trailer cupboard right below a postcard of Brokeback.
Brokeback Mountain is revolutionary in its execution. It not only subverts the typical masculine cowboys seen in American Westerns but also spans a wonderful homoerotic love story for twenty years. While it could have been made into a cheap porno, Lee’s masterful direction and craftsmanship weave in a beautiful story of two star-crossed lovers daunted by denial and the issue of forbidden love. The phenomenal Heath Ledger plays Ennis Del Mare while Jake Gyllenhaal shines through as Jack Twist. Their friendship and maturity on-screen helped create electrifying chemistry. Their passion, sadness and desire were infectious, emanating through the screen; the intimate scenes were aesthetically shot and induced happy tears. Heath Ledger’s Ennis is plagued by the prejudices instilled in him regarding homosexuality as well as the subsequent repercussions. He is afraid of following his heart and taking the wrong decision, being a calculative realist. “If you can’t fix it, Jack, you gotta stand it.” Jack, on the other hand, does not care, he is irrevocably in love with Ennis, dissatisfied with “a coupla high-altitude fucks once or twice a year” and confesses that, “sometimes I miss you so much I can hardly stand it.”
Jake Gyllenhaal has been quoted saying, “That what ties these two characters together is not just love, but loneliness. I think primarily it was a deep loneliness. And what I always say about that movie [Brokeback Mountain], which I think maybe over time is more understood, is that this is about two people desperately looking for love. To be loved. And who were probably capable of it. And they just found it with someone of the same sex. And that does not dismiss the fact that it is about, really, primarily, the first kind of very profound gay love story. Hopefully, it can create equality of an idea: that is, it’s possible that you can find love anywhere. That intimacy exists in so many places that convention and society won’t always allow us to see. And we won’t allow ourselves to see, because of what criticism — and danger, really — it might provoke.”
This 2005 film saw a close resemblance in the 2017 film Call Me By Your Name starring Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer. Set in quaint locations, both the films had an underlying theme of immense passion followed by subsequent heartbreak. While Elio and Jack are equally innocent in their perspective of the world, Oliver dares to embrace his true feelings which Ennis lacks. While Elio and Oliver live out their whirlwind romance throughout summer, Jack and Ennis’ story is excruciatingly slow. They escape to Brokeback which nearly becomes a state of mind- an idyllic place abound in happiness, warmth, joy and angry yet fulfilling sex.
Brokeback Mountain’s legendary loss at the Academy Awards to Crash even shocked the presenter Jack Nicholson. Most of the audience members did not cheer on and the Academy was criticised of being homophobic. Years later, the community triumphed when Moonlight won the Oscar for the Best Picture, exacting revenge for its predecessor’s unbelievable loss.
Beautiful and epic, profound and intimate, the atmospheric melancholy is heightened by the character’s repressed desires, tragic denial and the incessant longing to be with one another. Flawless and sad, the cast delivers incredible performances that leave an indelible mark on the viewers; Ennis and Jack play their respective parts with commitment, vulnerability and compassion in this tear-jerker of forbidden love which makes it one of Ang Lee’s finest curations, a moving and compelling poetic saga of desire and denial that changed the course of cinema, paving the way for LGBTQ+ films to establish their legacy with pride.