Brokeback Mountain is not one of those movies where you walk out and say, “Wow! That was great!” or “I can’t wait to see that movie again!” However, it is a movie that will stay with you for a long time. Under the direction of Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain is a movie that changes our perception of one of the most romanticized images in our culture: The Cowboy. It uses the iconic images that we know so well to do just that. While most people might see this movie as nothing more than a “gay cowboy” flick, in reality it is much more than that. It is about love, loss, and the inability to share those feelings with anyone.
Heath Ledger plays Ennis Del Mar, a quiet young rancher who was raised by his brother and sister after his homophobic parents were killed in a car crash. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jack Twist is the more outgoing of the pair as a wannabe rodeo star. The two meet during the summer of 1963 when they both sign on to be shepherds on Wyoming’s Brokeback Mountain. Despite Ennis’ quiet façade the pair becomes friends. One night, an overnight frost forces Ennis into Jack’s tent. That night, the friendship becomes something more, much more. Neither knows how to react to these new feelings. Their first love scene is more violent than tender. It is almost as if the characters use violence to prove they are still men. In a society which forbids men to be affectionate with one another, they must be aggressive to overcompensate for the love they feel for one another. Many of the scenes that should be loving instead turn out to be violent. They roll around on the ground in a manner that resembles fighting more than affection. When it comes to actually talking about what is going between them and dealing with their feelings, Jack seems more comfortable with the recent twist their relationship has taken while Ennis insists he “Aint no queer.”
Jack and Ennis do all they can to prove to the world they are “real men” – their clothing, their jobs and their speech all strengthen the stereotypical images of what men are supposed to be. Their dress is the most striking of these attempts at proving their masculinity. “The Marlboro Man,” to this day, is the ultimate symbol of masculinity. They use clothing to try to prove to the world that they comply with and perpetuate this myth. As long as they dress the part of the heterosexual man, they think they can fool the world into believing they actually are. The American West is traditionally the final frontier; it is the only place where men can be men. This film makes the bold claim that it is also the only place where men can be with men. Jack and Ennis are only comfortable being with one another in the privacy of the wilderness. In this place they experience passion that is never again duplicated, in any aspect of their lives. They never find that excitement with either their work or eventual spouses. They know cannot expect the world to accept their way of life.
Their looks also invoke images of classical Hollywood and the hetero-normative myth that it perpetuated. Ennis physically resembles James Dean from his role in Giant. With his cowboy hat pushed down his face, his body slumped over, and his labored speech, the two are almost identical. The two leading male stars in Giant were Dean and Rock Hudson. Both of these men lived in the proverbial closet. Dean’s bisexuality never reached the widespread knowledge that Hudson’s did; perhaps it is because his life was cut short when he was 25. Nevertheless, Dean and Hudson were both symbols of masculinity in the 1950s. In 1955 when Giant came out, the cowboy was still the masculine heterosexual figure popular culture knew and loved. However, by 2005 the world can learn better and can no longer deny the fact that no matter the façade, some things cannot be kept in the closet.
After their summer together Ennis and Jack go on their separate ways not to see each other for another four years. During the hiatus, Ennis marries his high school sweetheart, Alma (Michelle Williams), has two children, and attempts as much of a “normal” life as possible. Jack meets Lurleen (Anne Hathaway), a rodeo queen and the daughter of a wealthy farm equipment salesman. They too lead the seemingly hetero-normative lifestyle. Nonetheless, neither man is ever fully satisfied. Jack yearns to see Ennis again and returns to Brokeback Mountain in the summer of 1964 in hopes of finding him there. Ennis too, despite his insistence on being a heterosexual cannot escape his true nature. In one poignant love scene between Ennis and Alma, he violently flips her onto her stomach in a manner that parallels his first sexual encounter with Jack. Ennis has so much passion for Jack bottled up inside of his that he doesn’t know what to do with it. When Ennis and Jack are finally reunited after four years that unbridled passion reignites; again they embrace in violent kisses. From that point on they begin their annual rendezvous up to Brokeback Mountain, masked as fishing trips. Jack is idyllic and tries to convince Ennis that they could have a good life together living on a ranch together far away from society. Ennis, still scarred from when his father brought him to see the corpse of an old rancher who was murdered for living with another man, refuses. They continue this sporadic relationship as long as they can, hoping that their families do not catch on.
What makes this film so great is its truly universal themes. It proves that a theme can transcend a specific situation. It is about forbidden love and the tragedies it brings. The subject matter is as classic as Romeo and Juliet, only this affair is between two men. The other part of this tragedy is the irony of the time period in which it takes place. The film takes place from 1963-1983, one of the most sexually liberated time periods in American history. Yet, this story is so isolated from it and so far removed from the reality that so much of America was experiencing. The one reference that is made to “the 60s” is made by Jack. As he is leaving Brokeback Mountain, he tells Ennis that does not want to return to life as he knew it because of the possibility of getting drafted and set off the Vietnam. That is all they know of, not that the youth of the country are banding together to change the repressive society the older generation has created.
Another aspect of this tragedy is the ultimate legacy of the youth rebellion. How much of our country was truly affected? Matthew Shepherd was killed in Wyoming in 1998 for being a homosexual. Hate crimes are committed against people each day just because others don’t agree with whom they love. Furthermore, by the mere fact that people refuse to see the movie because they think it is nothing more than a “gay cowboy” film is a further example of people’s inability to accept that something they once held dear, the image of the lone man on his horse as the ultimate symbol of masculinity and freedom, is something other than their initial impression.
Take this film as you will, but keep in mind its universal themes. The splendid acting and direction will take your breath away and leave you wanting more. Over the course of the 2 and a half hours the characters become real, and an ultimate goal of this film is to prove that love has no boundaries be it age, race, and especially, gender. Maybe if one thinks about the message of the movie, the more one will realize that this is truly is a great film (even if declaring it out loud isn’t an initial reaction).