OPINION: The Impact and Legacy of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain
Cinema can be used as a tool that can be used to challenge stereotypes, to move audiences to a deeper understanding of something that they may have been unfamiliar with or even offended by. When a film comes along where the story in it of itself is challenging and rarely seen, it can come as a shock to audiences. One of the most impactful, and profound films of the 21st century to do this is Ang Lee’s 2005 film Brokeback Mountain. On face value, and the way many look back on the film, it’s just the “Gay Cowboy Movie”, but that is a demeaning way to look at a film that was so controversial and moving in it’s message. Brokeback Mountain is more than just a film about gay cowboys, it is a film that challenges the notions of masculinity, sexuality, marital issues, homophobic stereotypes, adultery, loneliness and much more. It is a film that shocked the world, from the tenacity and bravery of its stars, to the message it left. This is a look back at Brokeback Mountain.
The film begins in 1963 Wyoming. Young, hitchhiking-loner cowboy Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) stumbles upon Joe Aguirre, a sheep owner looking for someone to herd his sheep for the summer. While waiting outside Joe’s office, another young cowboy, Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), notices Ennis. Jack has herded for Aguirre before and takes slight interest in the introverted Ennis. The two men get the job, and their summer on Brokeback Mountain, the summer that will change their entire lives, begins. The two men are good at herding but there is an underlying “thing” between the two of them that you can’t quite put your hands on until one night, whilst sharing a tent with a drunken Ennis, Jack pulls Ennis’s arm over him. This awakens and shocks Ennis who almost immediately begins to attack Jack, but when the two men touch, now both awake and looking at each other, we finally know what the “thing” is. Ennis throws Jack to the ground and they make love. Ennis assures Jack later that this was a one time thing and that he is not gay, to which Jack agrees. They are both clearly affected by what has happened and it slowly consumes them. One night Ennis, without warning, enter’s Jack’s tent. The two lock eyes and we can feel the unselfish love in Jack’s eyes, and can relate to the scared and nervous Ennis, who has so obviously been repressing his true emotions up until then. The two men kiss, and have sex once more, however this time it is passionate and the love and intimacy is displayed like never before, most importantly though, this time Ennis is sober. For the rest of the summer the two young men form an intimate and complex sexual relationship. However, the summer is ending soon and Ennis will have to return home and marry his fiance Alma. As the summer finally does draw to a close Ennis and Jack share a solemn and reserved goodbye. Jack asks Ennis if he will return to Brokeback next summer, to which Ennis informs him it is unlikely. Jack accepts it, they say their goodbyes, and part ways. As Jack is driving away, a broken and confused Ennis collapses in an alley and attempts to throw up, but he can’t, so he cries and punches the wall repeatedly. Ennis is someone who is very unskilled at expressing his emotions, so he must resort to this.
Ennis does marry Alma and has two daughters with her. He is happy and content with his new family life, unaware that many miles away Jack has also married to a woman named Lureen. Four years after Brokeback, Jack writes Ennis hoping to see him again. Jack comes to Ennis’s home and they hug, and after a quick glance to make sure no one is around, Ennis pushes Jack against the wall and kisses him passionately. Alma accidentally witnesses her husband and Jack, and is shocked. Ennis and Jack part for a hotel for a night where Jack proposes they move in together, to which Ennis denies. To keep the rest of the summary from being repetitive I will say that basically for 20 years Jack and Ennis have meetups and fishing trips once or twice a year as their respective marriages deteriorate, Ennis’s primarily. The secret lovers engage in a heated argument between the two where Ennis confronts Jack about seeing male prostitutes in Mexico, and Jack tells Ennis that had they chose to live together and have a life, they would not be so miserable. But Ennis simply cannot do this, society indoctrinated him that two men living together was wrong, he saw it first hand when his father made him look upon the dead, beaten body of a suspected homosexual, he can never shake this fear, much to Jack’s dismay, who says that he wishes he knew how to quit Ennis. The confrontation causes Ennis to break down, forcing Jack to comfort him. They part ways once again. Ennis finds out sometime later that Jack was killed in a car repair accident. This news breaks Ennis and he visits Jack’s parents to ask them if he could spread his ashes on Brokeback Mountain, like Jack always wanted. The two reject his offer in favor of burying him with the family lot, but they let Ennis take two intertwined blood-stained shirts that belonged to Ennis and Jack during their time on Brokeback. Ennis lives out the rest of his tragic life alone in a lone trailer, his only companion being the shirts that remind him of the one time in his life he was truly happy and okay with who he really is.
The film is a tragic, but moving story as you can tell. The most tragic being the life of Ennis, portrayed absolutely beautifully by the late, great Heath Ledger. Ledger delivers such a nuanced, and layered performance, lifted to the heavens by the chemistry he shares with his on screen counterpart, Jack Twist, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. These two actors bring to life one of the most realistic, complex and unique “couples” in movie history. Their powerful and complicated love is quickly struck by tragedy when Jack is killed at only 39 years old, causing Ennis to live out the remainder of his days in isolation. This is an extremely emotional and heartbreaking ending, as it is so clear that had Ennis and Jack built a life together, Ennis would have been happy, and Jack wouldn’t have died so young. The final line of the film, delivered by Ennis as he gazes upon his and Jack’s intertwined shirts and a photo of Brokeback Mountain, “Jack I swear…” perfectly encapsulates the regret and loneliness that will be with Ennis for the rest of his life.
The question of their sexuality is brought up quite often. Upon its release the film was referred to by many as “the gay cowboy movie” but it is much, much more complex than that. Their actual sexualities are never clearly specified, so people can make of it what they think. This is just the way I see it. Jack is without a doubt gay, or at the very least, bisexual. Throughout the film, in addition to Ennis, Jack has sex with both his wife Lureen, and male prostitutes in Mexico. He tells Ennis the reason he sees the male prostitutes is because, unlike Ennis, he “can’t make it on a couple of high-altitude fucks once or twice a year.” He may be married, but Jack desires another male touch. Ennis, on the other hand, is much more difficult to pinpoint. The way I see it is, Ennis is not gay. I don’t even think Ennis is bisexual. Ennis is a very complex person, he is a person who desires love and is very capable of it, and it just so happens that he happens to find it in the arms of someone of the same sex. Love is love, Ennis shows no signs of attraction towards any man besides his wife, and Jack. His marriage to Alma is largely a coverup to hide his true love for Jack. As he and Jack grow older, with frequent hookups, his life with Alma begins to crumble. But even after their divorce, Ennis continues to deny Jacks offer of the two of them moving in together. The memories of his father showing him the beaten gay man, and the need to be an ideal cowboy will never leave Ennis. If he had let his emotions and true self shine, he would’ve ended up happy and content. Their sexualities are still up for debate, and I love hearing them, but to label them as just two gay cowboys is to miss the point entirely.
Brokeback Mountain is a film that I love with all of my heart and had one of the biggest effects on me of any film I’ve ever seen. It is a film that will be talked about and analyzed for years to come. It is a timeless masterpiece that challenged so many stereotypes upon release and revolutionized cinema forever. This isn’t just a love letter to the film, it is a love letter to all the LGBTQ people it inspired and spoke to on a level deeper than I could understand. It is a love letter to all the filmmakers and storytellers who, upon seeing the film, decided to never shy from a story or idea that may seem unpopular or wrong, but to embrace stories and characters of all sort. For as long as I live, I will never forget the words “I wish I knew how to quit you”, and if you watch Brokeback Mountain, neither will you.