Brokeback Mountain: More Than ‘A Gay Cowboy Movie’

“There were two old guys shacked up together. They were the joke of the town, even though they were pretty tough old birds,” Ennis says to Jack, reminiscing on a childhood memory. He recalls the men then beaten to death. “My dad,” Ennis says, “he made my brother and I see it (the body). For all I know, he did it.” Such was the fate of homosexual people in that era and this childhood memory is a lingering presence in the movie, almost tainting every happiness Ennis experiences with guilt and shame. Growing up with a homophobic father, Ennis was made to hate his own sexuality. “You know I ain’t queer,” he says to Jack after they first make love. 

Years later and a failed marriage under his belt, the same pain still haunts Ennis: “It’s all because of you, Jack, that I’m like this.” This movie is a beautiful tribute to forbidden love. It’s not because of Jack, rather it’s because Ennis and Jack were two men living in a time where they couldn’t love each other without harsh repercussions. Critics have coined this movie as ‘a gay cowboy movie’ which it is, but it is also so much more. It’s a portrayal of a universal sorrow—it could have been two women; a couple with different ethnic backgrounds; a heterosexual pair with different financial statuses who couldn’t be together; it would have still elicited the same deep emotions of empathy.

Exposition

Brokeback Mountain is an unforgettable viewing experience. Intelligently directed by Ang Lee, this movie is based on a short story by E. Annie Proulx. Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana then adapted it into a screenplay. Jack and Ennis’s story begins in 1963, when ranch boss Joe Aguirre hires Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) who were about 19 years old to herd sheep up on Wyoming’s Brokeback Mountain. Ennis is a quiet boy who has learned to be fearful long before he suspected his sexuality. Jack, with all his talk of rodeo riding, is a little more extroverted. One cold night and some whiskey later, they have sexual intercourse. 


“It’s nobody’s business but ours,” Jack tells Ennis. He couldn’t be more wrong. Joe spots them with his binoculars and never hires them again. Years pass, Ennis marries Alma (Michelle Williams) and they have two daughters. Jack, on the other hand marries Lureen (Anne Hathaway), moves to Texas and eventually has a son. All seems well until Jack visits Ennis in Wyoming. Lee has crafted a poignant scene—Ennis excitedly runs down the steps to greet Jack, collides with Jack’s body and they kiss passionately. With no words uttered to communicate their feelings, Lee creates a moment that feels almost too intimate to witness.

Conflict

Gyllenhaal and Ledger eloquently portray their expressions, and the scene reeks of pain and longing for a life that could have been. The pair then settle down into a routine of meeting as often as possible for “fishing trips”. Alma, who saw their reunion kiss, says nothing about it for a long time because nothing in her world had prepared her to witness two men kiss. But she notices there are never any fish when her husband comes home. Eventually, Alma confronts him about his infidelity and ends their marriage. When Alma remarries and lets Ennis feel the knife of her resentment, Williams plays the part of a betrayed wife exceptionally. We also see Hathaway’s character turn from a sweet girl to a bitter wife. As viewers, we are conflicted whether to blame the men for cheating or to empathize with them for having to repress a part of themselves that is as natural as breathing. In the end, we bitterly blame society and its narrow-minded ideals of sexuality for ruining four lives. 

Jack, unlike Ennis could accept a little less grudgingly that he is inescapably gay. In his frustration with Ennis, he goes to Mexico one night and finds a male prostitute. Perhaps society, with its ‘morals and ideals’ can accommodate prostitution because it accepts all facets of human nature; it knows what people need and provides it as a transaction. We can ignore it in the light of the day. Jack hopes to someday buy a ranch with Ennis and settle down. Ennis, who remembers what has happened to the gay men in his childhood refuses: “This thing gets hold of us at the wrong time and wrong place and we’re dead.” And so he denies himself happiness with the one person he has ever truly loved.

Final Thoughts

Kate Mara Remembers Working With Late Heath Ledger Brokeback Mountain
Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain.
(Source: Focus Features)

Ledger’s performance in this movie is a gift to witness. Every emotion he portrays feels like it is ripped out of him, he becomes Ennis just as he did with Joker when he played that iconic character. In the closing scene where Ennis visits Jack’s childhood home, it’s heart wrenching in what is said, but more importantly, in what is not said about living as a gay man in a world of homophobes. To see him inhale the scent of a shirt hanging in Jack’s closet is a measure of a life with a love lost. This movie, in my opinion, should have won the Oscar over Crash. It was that good. What I cannot be sure though, is this: In Ennis’s flashback, do we really witness what happens or do we witness how Ennis envisions their future? Ennis, whose homophobic father “made sure he saw it.” Either way, this movie hooks you in and leaves you reeling. 

Written by Praveena.

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