Brokeback Mountain (2005): Taboo Subjects

Directed: Ang Lee

With: Heath Ledger: Ennis Del Mar

Jake Gyllenhaal: Jack Twist

Randy Quaid: Joe Aquirre

Alma: Michelle Williams

Lureen: Anne Hathaway


                                                      Eros was the child of Poros (Plenty) and Penia (Poverty) conceived on the birthday of Aphrodite, the goddess of Love, and became her attendant. Like his mother, he is poor, rough and squalid, has no shoes, and no house to dwell in, and, like his mother, he is always in need. Like his father, too, he is always scheming for the fair and the good; he is bold, enterprising, strong, a mighty hunter, always weaving some intrigue or other, keen in the pursuit of his targets, fertile in resources; a thinker, enchanter, sorcerer and sophist.

From Plato’s Symposium


Though not winning a coveted “Best Picture” Oscar for 2005, Brokeback Mountain brought a “Best Director” award to Ang Lee, the meek-mannered Taiwanese who fully deserved this honor. Oscars don’t tell the whole story of a movie’s eventual critical appraisal, but they often provide clues as to the prevailing social mores and tastes of their times. Though Crash (the Best Picture winner) had energy and an innovative story line, it was Brokeback Mountain that carved a path with its bold treatment of a subject that mainstream movies seemed to have avoided or treated as fluffy stuff in comedies, that is, in a rather marginal way. No movie of the epic scope of Brokeback Mountain had ever broached a topic that dealt with a love affair between two males in the serious and tragic manner that this movie does. To say this is to state only part of the truth about the accomplishments of this movie. It is not only the boldness of the idea, it is its execution in dramatic terms that stuns the viewer, who does not and cannot expect to witness a screen love story between two males given with devastating honesty and heart-rending conviction. The topic of gays and lesbians has dominated headlines and brought us a new and often enforced code of expression—political correctness—that remains still a matter on the political level regardless of one’s real feelings towards a social question that still remains in the realms of controversy. Gay marriage has dominated headlines for a long time for instance, and that is a matter of politics—an area as remote to feeling as his constitutional rights remain to the emotions of a prisoner on death row awaiting execution. Brokeback Mountain is above all—and only—a story of love. It happens this love is shared by two men; and that is where discussion of the story should begin and end. But because the story touches on a political correctness question, it brings along with it the baggage of politics and social taboo to a story that inevitably crosses into those areas. As with crossing boundaries, the confusion that follows can sometimes be staggering.

But for the sake of this discussion, let us stay clear of the parameters and concentrate on only one thing: the love affair itself. This movie masterfully manages to keep all the baggage out of sight, doing so by using two major tools: simplicity of narrative; and time warp. The story is set back in the early sixties, when admitting being gay was entirely out of the question, and, in fact, the word had not been invented yet. It was a disgrace to hear a man being called “queer,” and that was the word (as “nigger” was for African Americans), and a sense of deep shame was attached and shared by those who felt emotion unusually strong for another man. As the movie shows, lynching of men who chose to live together were not uncommon, and gay men (to say nothing of women) who engaged in liaisons were mostly married, sneaking into Mexican towns or other red light districts to have their trysts, while living an ostensibly acceptable married life into the social milieu they happened to be in—small town in particular.

But it is the simplicity of the story that makes it so powerful. Two Texan “cowboys” seeking a job of sheep herding during the summer of 1963, take off for the mountains somewhere in Wyoming, and, of necessity, share living quarters, in the open or under tents, suffering the vicissitudes of weather and other rough conditions of wild nature, and all of a sudden, without any signs of attraction or warning, while sharing a tent during a cold night, they explode into love-making, surprising each other and the viewer. Both seem stunned by the sudden lewdness of their action and in the morning both deny that they are “queer.” There are early signs of attraction between them, but neither suspects nor wants to admit any such thing. Gyllenhaal’s unusually feminine features, flaming eyes, are a temptation to Ennis, but most of the early part of their assignment is spent in shepherding, and the explosion that brings them together physically is a total shock to them—not to today’s viewer, especially since previews usually give away the nature of a movie, and one expects what will happen.

Initially, they show some reserve, but soon they abandon themselves to their passion for each other, which they find impossible to control. But the supervisor, Aquirre, finds out, and cuts their employment short by a month, so both they have to return where they came from. Ennis is from a small town in Texas, he is spoken for, and as soon as he returns there he marries Alma, the type of Midwestern wife one expects in such a place, and soon two young girls sprout out and there is a family, living in conditions of near poverty in a ranch. Jack tries his hand at rodeo, and, though not very good at that rough art, he is able to attract a young woman, Lureen, daughter of a local money rancher, and the two get married and have a boy. The liaison of the two men continues even sporadically, and the result is the destruction of Ennis’s marriage, whose wife obtains a divorce, while Lureen while remaining loyal to her husband and running the family business, is aware of something unusual going on.

The two men continue to meet once or twice a year at Brokeback Mountain for almost twenty years. As years pass, Jack’s feelings become more intense, and he bitterly resents Ennis’s reluctance to give all up and go live with him in a place of their own. Ennis is more conscious of his social obligations and his ties to his children who depend on him for support. His attempts to break off the relationship backfire every time he tries to wrench away from what he knows is destructive relationship. When one of the cards he sends comes back with the stamp “Deceased” on it, he calls Jack’s wife, and she tells him he had died in an accident while changing a tire, but a montage shows the viewer Jack been kicked and stabbed to death by three men. Lureen probably was telling him a cover-up story. Ennis visits Jack’s parents in a deserved shack and offers to take one half of Jack’s ashes, who had requested to be cremated, to Brokeback Mountain, but Jack’s father prefers to have these interred in the family plot. Jack’s mother shows him Jack’s boyhood room, and Ennis takes a shirt he found in a hanger behind a door with him. Returning home, he receives a visit from his daughter, also called Ama, who informs him she is getting married and invites him to the wedding. Hesitating at first, Ennis says he will go, then, all by himself, looks at the shirt of Jack he had taken back with him, and cries.

This is a story of the catastrophe of passion, with practically no equivalent either in literature or in the movies, for stories of illicit passion usually in different sexual combinations—married women versus married men (Lean’s Brief Encounter being one), or young people from hostile clans who fall in love—Romeo and Juliet, for instance—or stories of incestuous relationships, Phaedra’s passion for Hippolytus (in Racine’s play) may be the closest that comes to this. In modern terms, only Achenbach’s passion for young Tadjio in Mann’s Death in Venice (and in Visconti’s film) seems to equal such a disastrous affair, and Humbert Humbert’s passion for young Lolita as in Nabokov’s novel (something that doesn’t quite come out right in the Kubrick and Lyne films) comes close.

None of the above, however, involves an affair of a man for another man. It is not that such things have no occurred in real life; but neither literary works nor film have broached the subject with such boldness, mastery, and tragic dimension. Here these two heroes are caught in impossible circumstances. From the very first moment, as the two men meet outside Aguirre’s trailer office, the viewer senses the genesis of an impossible relationship. Their attraction to each other is telegraphed and obvious even to the blind. Neither of them can develop an adequate defense against the onslaught of passion, and the circumstances that bring them together don’t help. Here one sees the mastery of Lee—and of his two script co-authors. The two men have to share not only duties, but a common environment, living in the outdoors, protect themselves from storms, wild life, and a mountainous countryside the emblematically seems untamed. Brokeback Mountain, the locale that gives its name to the film, is a node for untamed passion. Common attraction is a factor, but without the environment and circumstances it would never have come to pass.

The one who is closer to adhering to social dictates and obligations is Ennis, who has a hard look at this impossible relationship, sees it as futile and disastrous., and stays away from other entanglements with men, while Jack is consumed with his passion for Ennis, wants more of him—in fact a total relationship—and foolishly finds replacements in the Mexican quarters, something that eventually costs him his life. Of the two, Jack Twist is the weaker, but Ennis is the more tragic, for his love just as deep and consuming but his consciousness of the rift in him between the social being and father and his passion as a lover deeper. He is torn by the two opposing forces inside him and the result is a human wreck. Yet, his feelings for his lover are as overwhelming as Jack’s, though he shows a capacity for redemption, for he clearly sees the damage he has inflicted on his former wife, a girlfriend that has come his way, and his daughters. Love has made him an isolated unit in his social environment, such as it is, for Ang Lee is not out to castigate society’s blindness to love; he just shows the facts of life, such as it is, in the place that is described, and the times. The film is not about gays “in the closet,” but about love, love which is an impossibility in certain social strictures. Tess in Hardy’s Tess of the Urbervilles is a comparable example. Love not sanctioned by marital ties, or accepted by normal social conventions has always been in trouble. Passion is the enemy of reason and common sense, and only the lovers know its agony, but the victims include those to whom the lovers are tied to. This love is a wild, irrational passion, as uncontrollable as a beast. It consumes and makes wrecks of human being caught in its nets. Sanctioned by social ties, it is imagined as something tamed, but that is not always the truth.

Eros has no consideration for the human condition, and like Freud’s libido, or the id, it wrecks human happiness, for it is always demanding harshly that its wishes be satisfied reardless of consequences. Brokeback Mountain is a movie that accomplishes the difficult feat of showing the drama, the tragedy of two people caught in the snares of this god, who finds ways to get his wishes accomplished, ways that no normal human can resist. This movie achieves all this by using the simplest, and, cinematically speaking, the subtlest methods. All means are used to bring this story to its shattering climax; photography of wilderness, suggesting the savage nature of the beast residing in the human, the social milieu—marriage, fatherhood, parenthood, friendship, job dependence, the work ethic, casual encounters, and more—all come together to form ties between human that are too sensitive to be disturbed. Acting is not placed on a lesser level; Lee manages to elicit extraordinary performances from his two leads, but especially from Heath Ledger, whose face shows his strength defeated by his weakness, his manhood diminished by his enemy, not his lover, but by his own inability to free himself from it. In the end, he accepts his fate. His love will not disappear—as shown in his fetishistic attachment to his friend’s shirt, but his life will have to go on. Love is an ultimate mystery—a destructive but also a redeeming force. It is what makes one human, fully human.