Film

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Cynthia Fuchs

It's Alma's silence that makes Brokeback Mountain feel so serious. Her pain is neither exquisite nor elegiac. It is only hard.


Brokeback Mountain

Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Linda Cardellini, Anna Faris, Anne Hathaway, Michelle Williams, Randy Quaid
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Focus
First date: 2005
US Release Date: 1969-12-31 (Limited release)
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.

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.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image