Two lonely men, one taciturn and wound up so tight with self-hatred and repressed sexuality and rage one suspects he could rape or kill if the spring were released all the way; the other a starry-eyed boy romantic ready to thumb his nose at the world and to give up what little he possesses for the sake of love. Two men thrown together on a wildly beautiful Wyoming mountain, in terrain as lonely and as filled with unspent energy as its two human denizens. Two gay men stumbling onto an impossible and bitter love in a world as hostile to the queer as to the nigger. A dead-end affair in two dead-end lives, cowboys with hopes and dreams made of dust.
Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), two “ranch stiffs,” are hired to summer a large herd of sheep on Brokeback Mountain. Not long after their arrival on Brokeback, a frigid night and a snoot full of whiskey has them together in a pup tent and some rough sex ensues. Before long the roughness makes space for a little tenderness and Ennis and Jack fall in a clumsy kind of cowboy love. Their ungentle idyll is soon ended as the boss orders them to bring the sheep off the mountain in the middle of August, one month ahead of the originally scheduled descent. The two men return to their homes, carrying longing and a new loneliness away from Brokeback Mountain.
After they say goodbye and Jack drives off in his beat-up GMC pickup, Ennis is overwhelmed with grief, a grief expressed in dry heaves and a fist pounded into the wall in a dark alleyway.
Off the mountain and away from each other, Ennis and Jack set about being what they are expected to be: husbands, fathers, heads of family, wage earners. Ennis loves Alma (Michele Williams), whom he fucks doggy style, and he loves their two girls, who never seem to stop crying. And Jack loves Lureen (Anne Hathaway), the daughter of a wealthy farm equipment dealer, a man who treats Jack like a servant. But the flame is on low in these relationships; it only gets turned up when the two men reconnect after four years and spend the night in a cheap motel near Ennis’s place. And here is where their trouble really begins.
The sweetness and the rightness of their reunion cause Jack and Ennis to acknowledge the excruciating fact that they cannot live without each other. Jack is all for the two of them starting a little ranch and living together on it, but Ennis will have no part of such a plan; he is too conservative, too afraid of the potential consequences if they are found out. His motto is “If you can’t fix it, Jack, you gotta stand it.” Even after Alma divorces him and he becomes a “free man,” Ennis cannot let go of the reins. Jack, meanwhile, unable to control his longing and frustration, begins seeking encounters in dangerous places, with tragic results.
Director Ang Lee contrasts the wild and spectacular beauty of the settings in which Ennis and Jack are free to give full expression to their love with the dry and dusty environments in which they exist when they are apart. The love scenes themselves reflect the nature of the men, of the times, and of the place; the lovemaking is rough, tender, furtive, tentative – and heart-wrenching.
In his December 2005 review of the film, New York Times film critic Stephen Holden described Ledger’s Ennis as “so taciturn and bottled up that he swallows his syllables as he pulls words out of his mouth in gruff, reluctant grunts.” Gyllenhaal as Jack is boyish, naïve, tender, and reckless, a perfect foil for the repressed Ennis.
When I first saw Brokeback Mountain, which is based upon the exquisite Annie Proulx story of the same name, I marvelled that Lee (Eat Drink Man Woman, The Ice Storm, Hulk), a man from a culture as far away from 1960s Wyoming as the moon, could render the time and the place and the characters with such uncanny naturalism and fidelity. But after some reflection, I recognize now the universality of the story: two outcasts falling in love in a world that hates who they are and causes them to hate themselves. Ennis and Jack could be two Muslim men piloting a semi through the desert or two Amish women teaching in a community school.
But with this particular story – its unique setting and characters, its particular time and place and society – Ang Lee has created a masterpiece.
“Brokeback Mountain Poster” Wikipedia
Recent Ross Lonergan Articles:
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part Four
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part Three
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part Two
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part One
- Bullying, Fear, And The Full Moon (Part Four)