Brokeback Mountain

Focus Features;

Ang Lee

Larry McMurtry,
Diana Ossana
Based on the short story by
Annie Proulx

Heath Ledger,
Jake Gyllenhaal,
Michelle Williams,
Randy Quaid,
Anne Hathaway

Rared R, 134 minutes

Go Tell It On The Mountain
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, January 2010

"If you can't fix it Jack, you gotta stand it."
-Ennis Del Mar

Brokeback Mountain is the Citizen Kane of queer cinema. For a long time I've asked myself - what can I possibly add to what has already been written about this film? Those were my thoughts when it first came out on DVD. The landmark film was still very much in the news and so I decided to devote my video column in Outcome, that month, to a lesser known movie that I'd received as a screener. But four years have passed now. I've just screened the film again for the first time in over two years. Is it still the masterpiece it was in 2005?

Yes it is. Some films make an impact on their first release only to be forgotten later. This one has lost none of its raw power. It takes a lot for a movie to make me cry and that scene with the shirts still reduces me to a slab of Jell-O every time I see it. Brokeback Mountain was the breakthrough film that we awaited for decades. It was an exquisitely crafted movie, a critical and commercial success, and a surprise crossover hit. It was even nominated for the Best Picture Oscar (and lost, surprise surprise, just as Milk would three years later). The film struck quite a chord and also pushed a few buttons. The media, dumbing everything down as always, dubbed it "the gay cowboy movie." Conservative pundits and the family councils all went into apoplexy, jokes were made by comedians, and the mythology of the American cowboy underwent a major revision.

But, above all, Brokeback Mountain was a love story that resonated with audiences both gay and straight. I am going under the assumption that most, if not all, of my readers have seen Brokeback Mountain. If you're one of the few who haven't, MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD.

The year is 1963, the setting is rural Wyoming. Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) are two young ranch hands, aged 19, who work together one summer herding sheep on Brokeback Mountain. They are two confused kids who are about to become men - but not the way they were taught to be. One drunken night, while sharing a tent, they enjoy spontaneous and rough sex. "You know I aint queer," Ennis tells Jack the next day, and Jack replies "Me Neither." The movie's poster's tag-line, however, says it all: Love is a force of nature. The pain of saying farewell is so intense that, when they go their separate ways, Ennis collapses and chokes as if he had been punched in the gut. Life goes on and both men will fulfill their societal obligations by getting married. When their paths cross again, four years later, the same spark is there. "Couldn't get here fast enough," Jack tells Ennis after they make love in a cheap motel. Over the next 20 years, Ennis and Jack take "fishing trips" together but, as painfully observed by Ennis' abandoned wife, Alma, they never bring home any fish.

Ennis is a man of few words until he meets the more outgoing Jack. Both men grew up on a ranch. Ennis lost his parents when he was young and Jack rides in a rodeo to impress his Dad. The key to understanding these two men, and their differences, lies in the lessens Ennis took from his father. The old man taught his son to hate homosexuals and Ennis grew up hating this part of himself. When Jack suggests that they settle down on a ranch together, Ennis relates a tale from his childhood. There were "two tough old birds" who lived together on a ranch and they "was a joke in town." One night they were beaten to death with a tire iron and Ennis' father made sure that his sons saw what happened. "For all I know," Ennis states, "He done the job." The incident scarred Ennis for life and a deep rooted self hatred renders him incapable of accepting Jack's offer. If "this thing comes over us in the wrong place," Ennis insists, they will be dead. "If you can't fix it Jack, you gotta stand it." That only leaves room for the occasional fishing trip and a denial of their true selves.
It is one of the saddest love stories ever filmed and it comes with a remarkable lineage. It was, first, a 1997 short story published in The New Yorker by noted author Annie Proulx. It was then adapted for the screen by Larry McMurtry, the author of Lonesome Dove (also considered a revisionist Western), and his writing partner, Diana Ossana. After many false starts, (Gus Van Sant was once attached to the project), Brokeback Mountain was directed with skill by Ang Lee (Taking Woodstock) and brought unforgettably to life by Ledger and Gyllenhaal. Lee was an excellent choice; he had also treated gay characters with great sensitivity and courage when he directed The Wedding Banquet in 1994.
This wasn't the first time that the movies dared to suggest that cowboys could be queer. Ranchers pranced and preened on the prairie in Andy Warhol's Lonesome Cowboys (1968). In John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy (1969), Dustin Hoffman tells John Voight that his Western attire is "faggot stuff" as Voight screams, "Are you calling John Wayne a fag?" The cowpoke campfire scene was deconstructed in Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho (1991) when River Phoenix confessed his love to Keanu Reeves. Critic Leslie Fiedler famously wrote about hidden and coded homosexuality in the American Western and Brokeback Mountain brings this right out into the forefront. This was a hard pill for some to swallow. The Hollywood stereotype of the "manly" cowboy, is embedded into our collective consciousness, and the myths of the Old West are sacred cows. (One could ask why those who sometimes slaughtered Native Americans are called heroes but this is a topic for another essay.) Brokeback Mountain made many people uncomfortable, while others had their eyes opened by this movie and finally recognized that not all gay men are hairdressers and fashionistas.
Brokeback Mountain questions society's notions of masculinity and turns them upside down. For those who dismiss the notion of the Marlboro Man being on the down low, I ask this question: what is a cowboy? How does the flashy "Rhinestone Cowboy" of Glen Campbell's song fit into the archetype? Does riding a horse in a rodeo while dressing like Liberace make you a "real" cowboy? And wasn't it ridiculous watching then-President Bush swagger around in a cowboy hat and designer boots, and speaking in a Texas drawl, when he was actually a rich WASP who was born in Connecticut?
Brokeback Mountain examines homophobia as a destructive force in people's lives. Need I point out that, the year after Proulx first wrote the story, Matthew Shepard was beaten, tied to a fence, and left to die in Laramie, Wyoming? There was no gay pride during the 60s and the era's bigotry forces Ennis and Jack to deny the greatest passion that either of them will ever know. Brokeback Mountain is important because it is also about the effect that homophobia has on families when people wed only because they are expected to. Like the wake of a hurricane, the debris of two love-less marriages is left behind. Look at how devastated Alma (Michelle Williams) is when she realizes that her marriage to Ennis is a lie. Williams' performance as Alma is a study in sorrow like I haven't seen since the films of Ingmar Bergman.
As is the late Heath Ledger's starring turn as Ennis. His performance is a small miracle. At times he appears to be the reincarnation of James Dean; he fully disappears into his character and makes it his own. This is a man who has been beaten down by life. It is a struggle for him to speak and, as played by Ledger, the words often strangle in his throat. The pain in his eyes is unmistakable. He has built walls around himself and wears his cowboy attire as a suit of armor. But there's nowhere to hide and, wherever he turns, he finds Jack. Gyllenhaal is also terrific as the man that Ennis just can't bring himself to swear his undying love to. His performance is no less heartfelt than Ledger's.
Lee doesn't offer us a pretty travelogue. We are treated to postcard mountain photography but elsewhere the landscape and settings are often arid and bleak. Brokeback Mountain, for a time, is a stand-in for Eden and our lads enjoy good times together before their expulsion from paradise. There are dangers too; one of the sheep is gored by coyotes, a bear spooks Ennis' horse, and their boss watches them through binoculars one day and he doesn't look pleased. The following summer, Jack tries to get his old job back and is told there is no work. When Jack asks his old boss (Randy Quaid) if Ennis has come by, the boss-man looks coldly at him and says, "You boys sure found a way to make the time pass up there... you guys wasn't getting paid to leave the dogs baby-sit the sheep while you stemmed the rose."

The relationship between Ennis and Jack is beautifully realized. Their summer together is pure magic. Look at the scene when they first really make love. Ennis turns away when Jack first tries to kiss him but then gives in to the force of nature when Jack whispers, gently, "It's all right." These men are mad for each other even if they both insist that they're "not queer." What are they then? Two inarticulate boys from Wyoming who don't understand what is happening but know that, in the eyes of society, it will never be tolerated. When they meet again four years later, it is obvious to both of them what is missing in their lives. They embrace as old friends and, within seconds, they are unable to control their passion. It is one of the hottest moments in all of queer cinema when Ennis looks around and then pushes Jack into a corner and their mouths practically devour each other. Their passion is apparent even when they quarrel. Listen to the pain in Jack's voice when he says, "I wish I could quit you." Their dual wails of despair triggers the idyllic and iconic flashback of Ennis holding Jack, who is "sleeping on his feet like a horse" by the campfire on Brokeback Mountain. The young Jack smiles and watches, his eyes filled with longing, as Ennis rides away on his horse to return to the sheep. Then it's twenty years later, and Jack is watching Ennis drive away in his truck for the last time... with the same look of longing on his face, this time mixed with anger and sadness.

One small criticism. Our lads age very convincingly but I can spot fake facial hair a mile away. And Gyllenhaal, (who is almost always photographed bearded when he's not in a film playing someone clean shaven), was more than capable of growing his own moustache for those scenes. Again, minor quibble. It's just something I notice; I usually catch continuity errors with beard stubble in movies too.

There has been much speculation about the ending. [BIG TIME SPOILER ALERT NEXT THREE PARAGRAPHS!] Ennis learns that Jack is dead and calls his widow. Lureen (Anne Hathaway), whose own tragedy is conveyed by the increasing amounts of peroxide in her hair, tells him that Jack was fixing a flat when the tire exploded and the rim slammed into his face. Suddenly there is a flash cut to Jack being beaten with a tire iron by a gang of toughs. It only lasts a few seconds but it jolts you out of your seat. I have always interpreted this shocking image to be what Ennis thinks really happened and not meant to be taken as a literal flashback. But it is also, sadly, quite possible that Jack's wife is lying and he really did die at the hands of gay bashers. This ambiguity is a large part of Brokeback Mountain's brilliance. We will never know for sure, and it can be debated endlessly, but it is certainly the embodiment of everything that Ennis feared.
What follows is one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the history of cinema. Ennis visits Jack's parents and steps into his lover's old room. Jack would stay there from time to time and his mother kept it as it was when her son was still a boy. Ennis is dumbstruck when he looks into the closet and finds one of the shirts that Jack wore back when they first met. The sleeve is still caked with Ennis' blood from the fight they had on the day they left Brokeback Mountain. But wait, there's another sleeve sticking out from under the cuff and Ennis is further stunned to find his missing shirt inside of Jack's, like "two skins." He hugs the two shirts to his chest, struggling against tears. He will never be loved like this again and his wasted life crashes down on him.
Finally, there is a brief epilogue in which Ennis is visited by his adult daughter. She is getting married and asks for her father's blessing. Ennis is a broken and unhappy man, living in a small trailer. He has one question for his daughter: does he love you? Ennis learned his lesson too late. When his daughter leaves, he folds the sweater she forgot and opens a closet. A postcard of Brokeback Mountain is tacked to the door. ((It just hit me that the picture of the mountain on the postcard is actually quite ugly, dark and blurry... as opposed to the beauty we saw at the beginning through our cowboys' eyes.) And, next to the postcard, the two shirts are also hanging there - except that Jack's shirt is now on the inside. Ennis lovingly closes the top button and mumbles "Jack, I swear..." while choking back tears.
I clearly remember the first time I saw the film and what a cathartic experience it was. Allow me a personal remembrance as I couldn't possibly have first seen this film under any better conditions than I did. It came to Buffalo in early January, 2006. We'd heard all the buzz for the last few weeks. Normally I don't give a flying feck about box office grosses. How much money a film makes has nothing to do with its artistry; if that was the case Transformers II would be one of the ten greatest films of all time. Brokeback Mountain out-grossed all of the major studio releases despite opening on fewer screens, and the mainstream critics were fawning over it. I had been eagerly awaiting it, especially since the previous September. That was when an old colleague, from my days as editor of a local entertainment paper called Metro Weekend, e-mailed me from the Toronto Film Festival. Michael Calleri wrote the movie column in Weekend, and also did film reviews on Channel 4 News. We share an interest in Hitchcock. He sent me an e-mail from Toronto with four words: "Brokeback Mountain is brilliant!"
The film opened at the North Park Theater. This independent house is one of the oldest movie theaters in Buffalo. It is big, its decor screams 1920s, and the screen is huge. My life partner, Andy, and I attended the opening weekend there. We met another couple at the theater and also discovered that we knew at least a quarter of the gay men and women in the sold out audience. The atmosphere was nothing like when I saw Making Love in 1982 and the audience whooped with laughter when Harry Hamlin and Michael Ontkean kissed. What a difference two decades make. The vibe in the North Park Theater was amazing. And there was something wonderful about seeing this magnificent film for the first time on a big screen in an old movie theater. It wouldn't have been the same at a multi-plex. We could feel like audiences did in the 1940s when Humphrey Bogart kissed Ingrid Bergman on the tarmac at the end of Casablanca. It was the experience of watching an old MGM romance on a big screen during Hollywood's Golden Age and finally it was two men, larger than life, who were making our hearts flutter. When Ennis found the shirts, it seemed as if the entire theater was crying.
Predictably, there were factions within the gay community who complained that this was just another tragic story about self loathing homosexuals with no happy ending and one of them dead, probably murdered. But Annie Proulx didn't set out to write a story with a fairy tale ending, she wanted to expose institutionalized homophobia for the cancer that it is. Ennis and Jack's tale, filled with joy and sadness, is universal and the film proved that a love story between two men could inspire the masses without preaching to the choir. Never mind what people like Pat Robertson and the Rev, Fred Phelps said about it. (I think the only thing Phelps hates more than this movie is The Laramie Project.) Great art has the ability to effect change and Brokeback Mountain profoundly moved a lot of people. It's impact cannot be overstated.

One last thing. The music. The acoustic guitar theme is beautiful in its simplicity. The background songs were well chosen, from Tammy Wynette to The Allman Brothers. Don't get up during the credits or you'll miss a beautiful song by Bob Dylan, performed by Willie Nelson, called "He Was A Friend Of Mine." This is a traditional folk tune that laments the death of a friend, and this version was arranged by Dylan in 1962. It contains lines like "He died on the road" and "Every time I think of him / I just can't keep from cryin' / 'Cause he was a friend of mine." It is a beautiful coda to the film. After this, out singer Rufus Wainwright takes us to the end of the credits with "The Maker Makes."


More On Ang Lee:
The Wedding Banquet
Taking Woodstock