I read it, and I was like, “Oh wow,” because I always recognized it as being the love story that it is, just being heartbreaking and very, very real.
—Anne Hathaway, “From Script to Screen: Interviews with Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana”
It’s a movie that’s been crying out to be made. Brokeback Mountain is a fresh take on the great American love story.
—Rachel Perry, narration for “Sharing the Story: The Making of Brokeback Mountain”
You ever rodeo?
—Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), Brokeback Mountain
Every time you cut to the main menu page for the first DVD version of Brokeback Mountain, you’ll hear that same guitar theme that is now so excruciatingly familiar. Whether you’ve heard Gustavo Santaolalla’s sober strums in the film’s extensive promotional campaign or in its many parodies on line and tv, the sound is by now so overkilled that even one more repetition seems just that little bit too much.
The repetition of this theme coincides with the glopped on sincerity of the four featurettes included on this DVD (we might presume that a more carefully loaded version is “coming soon,” so everyone who loves the film can spend money at least twice). While the film is surely moving and groundbreaking in multiple ways, the self-congratulation for “courage” that became its promotional mantra doesn’t need further rehearsal. As everyone knows—even those who haven’t seen it—the concerns Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), who meet during a gig herding sheep on Wyoming’s Brokeback Mountain and end up in a decades-long affair.
As the DVD reminds you, the imagery and performance are lovely. In their first moments together, Jack and Ennis stand at all kinds of opposite angles in the frame—diagonally as well as horizontally—refusing to look one another in the eye, cowboy hats low over their foreheads, jeans snug on their hips. Acting out broad cultural fantasies, these shy and gentle cowboys have trouble speaking their desire. They build campfires, shoot at coyote, they eat beans and venison. They are beautiful though, rugged and taut, even as they age some 25 years, whether stealing glances at each other, starting their pickup trucks, swinging their legs up and over their horses, or gazing out over stunning wide shots.
While the movie’s poetry is often stunning, the DVD docs are decidedly and disappointingly banal. “On Being a Cowboy” provides five minutes of info on “cowboy camp,” footage and description by stunt coordinator Kirk Jarrett, animal wrangler T.J. Bews, wrangler Don Gillespie, as well as crew and cast (among them, Lee, Ledger, Gyllenhaal, and Hathaway, who does a little barrel-racing pretense in the film). The seven-minute “Directing from the Heart: Ang Lee” extends the film’s mythic status as earnest gloss on what it means to feel alienated, lost, and afraid in an oppressive culture, underlined by the director’s own well-known earnestness (“He’s constantly inside your character’s head, and inside the movie. It consumes him,” says Ledger; “Ang is all about detail and the slight difference between one color and another, he does have a very good sense of composition,” observes the brilliant cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto). And “Sharing the Story: The Making of Brokeback Mountain” is a tv promo piece of the most tedious sort, with Ledger appearing in movie star’s sunglasses and everyone sincerely extolling the virtues of the project.
With its first scenes occurring in 1963, Brokeback does evoke the limits of the moment and, at least Jack’s passionate hope for something more. Jack acts first on their lusty desire (he grabs Ennis’ cock one night in their suddenly less cold tent, their first sex violent and painfully full of longing), and then submits to his fate—playing straight with Lurleen (Anne Hathaway). This in part in response to Ennis’ anxious insistence that he’s straight (“It’s a one shot thing we got goin’ on here”) and also to Ennis’ marriage to Alma (Michelle Williams).
And yet, their love that cannot speak its name is so overpowering that they can’t not see one another. The men exchange a couple of “genral delivery” [sic] postcards and then leap headlong. “Friend, this letter is long overdue,” begins Jack’s first gesture, some four years after their time on the mountain, “Coming through on the 24th. Drop me a line say if your there” [sic and sic again—the point is, again, they lack verbal skills but make up for it in tenderness and passion].
Ennis writes back, so succinctly, “You bet.” Their meeting outside Ennis’ window over the laundromat leads to instant clinch and passionate kissing against a wall. Alma, thinking she’s eager to meet the man who has so captured her husband’s imagination, sees them, hungry, grasping, wordless (and accompanied by a slight mutation on that guitar strum). Horrified, she says nothing. Instead, she watches Ennis go on “fishing trips” over the coming years, never asking him to explain, even when he reveals to her his preference for sex from behind.
It’s Alma’s silence that makes Brokeback Mountain feel serious, even significant. Her pain is neither exquisite nor elegiac. It is only hard. Looking at Ennis so eager to leave for Jack (like a place, a country, another dimension), she has her daughter in her arms and barely-tears in her eyes. When Ennis pecks her cheek before running off to spend a “day or two” with Jack on the mountain, Alma is the tragic bearer of knowledge. Because the men won’t admit their relationship, and everyone else—Lurleen included—seems inclined to see their difference as a function of gender (they aren’t “manly”) rather than self or desire, Alma is the single character whose silence is premised on a visible lie: you see her see, and she says nothing.
The film is about silence, as it shapes and emerges from fear—of loss, difference, alienation (“Ever get the feeling somebody looks at you suspicious? Like they know?”). At the same time, the men’s picturesque meet-ups seem efforts to recapture, again and again, their first encounter. Or, it could be that they mean to extend and elaborate on that early relationship: frankly, the film doesn’t make clear what they do, except pretend to “fish,” enjoy the splendor of their surroundings, and lean toward some tension or even the start of an argument as they part, promising to meet again in some months. As time wears on, these idylls are less lyrical than they are repetitive: what is either man getting out of these self-interested, anxious-making agreements?
Ennis and Jack can’t acknowledge their relationship as a choice and a commitment, only as a “thing.” “That Brokeback got us good, don’t it?” asks Jack. Though he wants them to move off to a ranch and live their fantasy daily (“There’s never enough time”), Ennis demurs, saying, “If this thing grabs hold us at the wrong place and the wrong time, we’re dead.” Jack has seen it, as he recalls for Ennis in poetic, melancholy flashback to his nine-year-old self: his father brought him and his brother to see the corpse of a gay man assaulted by fearful straights: “Drug him round by his dick till it pulled off,” he remembers, as the camera shows the body in an irrigation ditch and then the boy’s face, stricken.
While Ennis is damaged and sad, Jack is more adventurous, even cruises rodeo bars and Mexican border towns when he’s horny. And yet, the romance between Ennis and Jack is sincere, such that the film becomes wholly conventional. While lamenting the “impossible” nature of their love, the movie also celebrates their devotion, their coupledom, their same-time-next-year-ish repetition. Unable to convince Ennis to take a next step, the paunchy, wrinkle-makeup-faced Jack finally articulates his exasperation: “You know, friend, this is a bitch of an unsatisfactory situation.” Ennis has no rejoinder. That is, he’s unable to voice his own desire, fear, and courage, again.
Ennis’ lack of language, initially seeming reduced in Ledger’s performance to clench-jawed mumbling, is eventually subtler, especially in his relationship with his daughter, Alma Jr. (at 19, played by Kate Mara). They share a distrust of words that’s common in Westerns (a genre this film concedes more than it emulates or challenges). Jr. observes her father closely, and does her best to keep him from taking up—after his divorce from her mom—with a perky barmaid. “You don’t say much,” notes the girlfriend as the two “girls” sit together at a table, watching Ennis lean over jukebox, “But you get your point across.”
Brokeback Mountain gets its point across too: the men are anguished and the big wide Wyoming landscape reflects their efforts to be together, to stay apart, to resist expectations and to give in to them. Most often, however, they embody, in unspeakably pretty poses, the persistence of their pain.