Neither a cowboy picture nor an engaged gay movie, Ang Lee’s 2005 Brokeback Mountain, with its honest depiction of a poignant love story between two lonely men, is primarily a tragedy of denied happiness, but ultimately a subtle study of repression and quiet desperation.
At the end of Brokeback Mountain, when Ennis Del Mar, standing in front of Jack Twist’s shirt and a picture of the mountains of Wyoming, cries for his paradise lost, we feel for him. For if you are not affected by their story and the poignancy of their denied happiness and forbidden love, then you have no heart. The image of Del Mar’s face, wet by tears of regret and existential desperation, should reflect a sadness so universal that the details of the tale (the homosexual aspect of their relationship, American intolerance in the 1960s, and even Twist’s death at the end of the film) become irrelevant. This is melodrama of the highest order.
Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) meet on a job to tend sheep on the mountains of Wyoming. Ennis is taciturn and shy; Jack, more communicative and outgoing. Initially, they keep camp, eat and one of them sleep with the sheep. Then, the isolation of those beautiful mountains and the loneliness within their hearts get to them. One night, almost impulsively and following instincts that are buried deep inside, they kiss and make love. The next morning neither of them admit to their queerness. At the end of the job, they part ways and each eventually marry girls. Over a period of 20 years they meet on fishing trips and rekindle their passion until Ennis hears of Jack’s death.
Soon after its release, Brokeback Mountain got the label of ‘the gay cowboy picture’. Such description is not only simplistic – reducing the story of a complex relationship to its superficial level, but also highly inaccurate. For the film is neither about cowboys nor gay people. Now, art is different things for different people. One person watches the film and sees the suffering caused by ignorance, fear and small-minded people; the evil of homophobic society. Others might find the difference in social class between these two men, a more significant theme. I understand the film as the story of inner repression and denial, aggravated by social intolerance, but not totally caused by it.
..Brokeback Mountain Trailer © Universal Studios.
The poignancy of the story comes from these two people being kept apart by their own volition. Jack suggested that they should move to a little ranch, but Ennis could not conceive of such arrangement. It is true that Ennis was in some kind of denial and that he was strongly inclined towards homophobia, but denial and fear are not the main (or at least not the only) reasons for his refusal to even contemplate a life together with another man. He feared to be called and to be seen as queer, but mainly, he could not think of being queer as part of his identity. Sure, once or twice a year he would engage in a homosexual relationship with another man, but that relationship had deeper meanings than simply erotic pleasure.
It is the strength of their attraction for each other – which goes beyond the sexual – and the subsequent denial of the fulfilment of that love that makes the tale so poignant. Unfulfilled love in different circumstances would have the same effect. A man and a woman from different social classes in the context of a monolithic society would present a similar heartache. Thus the tragedy of their tale comes, not from their homosexuality, but from their own refusal to challenge the social norms of their society. What’s important here is not the fact that they are gay (are they even gay?) but that social conventions force them to deny their own happiness.
And their happiness seemed to depend upon that relationship. Throughout the 20 years in which they meet, both Ennis and Jack give the impression that those encounters were the highlights of their lives. We are shown the boredom and frustration in their personal lives: these decent guys are married to decent girls and yet none of them are happy. Assuming that Ennis is not bisexual, when he makes love to his wife Alma (Michelle Williams), one can see that he engages in heterosexual sex as compensation. He feels lonely and desperate in his own existence and the only way to ameliorate the situation is to have a deeper connection with another human being.
Perhaps that is proof that Ennis is truly repressing his homosexuality. But it is Jack who really compromises, not only on his happiness, but also on his freedom. He accepts the pretence of his marriage to Lureen Newsome (Anne Hathaway), even though there are strong feelings of contempt between them. However, to accept the interpretation that one acts against their own self-interest in order to protect their sanity, opens up the possibility of interpreting Ennis’ and Jack’s relationship differently. Through the same logic it can be argued that their first sexual encounter was the result of the same impulses. They engage with each other physically as to alleviate their existential angst.
Either way, gay or not, their story is tragic as a consequence of their own flaws. Flaws that have to do with their mindset, and not with their sexual orientation. Although dealing with very specific issues, Brokeback Mountain resembles the classical Greek tragedies: thematically universal and realistically ambiguous. This is a truly moving and modern, American masterpiece.