Ennis: You know I ain’t queer.
Jack: Me neither.
Looking for work, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) find one another. Or so it appears in the first wordless moments of Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee’s earnest, contemplative translation of Anne Proulx’s 1997 short story. They 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.
Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Linda Cardellini, Anna Faris, Anne Hathaway, Michelle Williams, Randy Quaid
US theatrical: 31 Dec 1969 (Limited release)
You know before you see them that they’re bound to tussle and love one another on a Wyoming mountain because you’ve heard the buzz that preceded the film’s release. And yet, Ennis and Jack’s initial shrugs and shuffles are strangely sweet. Acting out broad cultural fantasies, these shy and gentle cowboys have trouble speaking their desire, even articulating it to themselves. 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.
All this is what Brokeback Mountain does well. During their month on the mountain, before rancher Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid), calls them home early, they learn all about one another. They don’t talk much, but they do “share.” It’s 1963, and their lives are laid out: Jack’s a cowboy, sometimes riding bulls in rodeos and sometimes watching sheep, as with Ennis. For his part, Ennis confesses he’s engaged to be married to a girl in town named Alma (Michelle Williams).
Jack, the one who acted 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), is resigned and unsurprised. He knows their feelings must remain unspoken. He knows Ennis is straight, because that’s one of the few things he has said out loud (“It’s a one shot thing we got goin’ on here”). And he knows that they’ll probably never meet again (Jack assents, “Nobody’s business but ours”).
And yet, their love that cannot speak its name is so overwhelming that they can’t not see one another. Despite Ennis’ immediate marriage and one-two children, despite Jack’s eventual marriage to sassy, rich daddy’s girl and barrel-racer Lureen (Anne Hathaway, who delivers a terrific, tight little performance during a phone call near film’s end), the men exchange a couple of postcards and then leap headlong. “Dear friend,” begins Jack’s first gesture, some four years after their time on the range, wondering whether they might meet someday. Ennis writes back, so succinctly, “You bet.” Their meeting outside Ennis’ window over the laundromat leads to instant clinch and passionate kissing, pushed back against a wall, as if they’re hiding. But Alma, thinking she’s eager to meet the man who has so captured her husband’s imagination, sees them, hungry and again, wordless. 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 his preference for sex from behind.
It’s Alma’s silence that makes Brokeback Mountain feel so serious. Her pain is neither exquisite nor elegiac. It is only hard. As soon as she sees, her daughter in her arms and barely-tears in her eyes as 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. Her denial is self-damaging.
The film is about silence, as this shapes and emerges from fear—of loss, difference, alienation (“Ever get the feeling somebody looks at you suspicious? Like they know?”), as well as the resentment such fear creates. 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.” Though Jack wants them to move off to a ranch and live their fantasy daily (“There’s never enough time”), Ennis is cautious, believing that, if their “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.
So it’s clear enough 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 at lean over jukebox, “But you get your point across.”
Brokeback Mountain gets its point across too: the men are anguished. They act on their pain in different ways, and the big wide Wyoming landscape—so mighty, so simple, so overwhelming—reflects their efforts to be together, to stay apart, to resist expectations and to succumb to them. Most often, however, they embody, in unspeakably pretty poses, the persistence of oppression and prejudice.