Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain (2005).

Norman N. Holland

    A great todo erupted about this film because it portrays, sympathetically!, a pair of gay lovers. Out popped dozens of carping reviews. Either conservatives complained that Ang Lee’s portrayal of a gay couple was too sympathetic, or pro-gay people complained that Lee’s muted (Chinese?) style didn’t do enough for gay rights. Did the filmmakers sell the “gay-ness” of the movie short by claiming it is a universal love story? Many reviewers worried about that.

    Strangely, few reviewers even mentioned bisexuality though both these men have wives and children and heterosexual affairs on the side as well as the gay passion the critics were agitated about. Is bi sex scarier to the sexually conservative than gay love? Maybe so. Anyway, I’ve come across a useful phrase: these two are “on the gay side of bisexuality.” Lee portrays their love affair with sympathy and tenderness and complexity. In one scene in a motel, his close-ups make their faces almost feminine. In other scenes they quarrel and fight, even drawing blood. And throughout they insist they are not gay.

    Their affair began when the two men, boys then, had a job tending sheep on Brokeback Mountain. One drunken night, they had sex and found that they liked it—liked it passionately, loved it and each other.

    Some have asked, Why sheep? If these are cowboys (a word seldom used in this film or the Annie Proulx story from which it originated), why aren’t they herding cows? I’d suggest that Proulx and Lee both are being Biblical. Sheep are the agricultural animal of choice in Old Testament and New. Abel, Abraham, Moses, and David were all shepherds, and sheep are constantly used as a stand-in for humans. “He shall set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left.” “The Lord is my shepherd” (pastor in Latin). The parable of the lost sheep—and so on. These boys are sheep who have lost their way or gone astray as in the Whiffenpoofs’ song. Symbolically, the morning after they have sex, one of them finds a disemboweled sheep.

    Think too of Dionysus, god of wine and drunkenness, laughter, religious theater and ecstasy, every form of irrationality, a fertility god and a mountain god—surely the tutelary deity for these two cowboys. We see them in all these roles on their mountain, laughing crazily, talking religion, drinking, and, above all, being swept up in a sexuality they cannot understand. Proulx and Lee have given our two cowboys archetypal roles.

    The two of them differ, though. Even in their mute opening, we can see that Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the more articulate and outgoing. Ennis (the late, alas!, Heath Ledger) is more drawn in. Jack dresses in bolder colors, black hat and strong blues. Ennis wears a tan jacket and hat and faded blue jeans. Jack rides bulls in rodeos. Ennis works on ranches when the cows are calving. As the plot develops, Ennis is the homemaker, first married, first with children. Ennis tries to earn money. Jack inherits flashily.

    Their passion takes both of them by surprise. They insist they are not “queer.” As the affair develops, Jack seeks other gay outlets; Ennis doesn’t. Both are high school dropouts, yet from time to time their language becomes poetic. (How could it be otherwise with Annie Proulx writing their dialogue?) Yet they have no language for what they’re doing. “This thing.” “This is a one-shot thing we got goin’ on here.”

    Reviewers go on about gay rights, but I think this film develops a much more traditional theme: nature, the first 40 minutes of the movie, contrasted to society or culture, the remaining 90. Nature, sublime, beautiful, majestic, flowing—the gorgeous photography of the French cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto celebrates it all. Then, his skill brings out the flat or garish ugliness of society, the rodeo, a night club, an eatery, shabby towns, the dull homes of the two men, television.

    Nature involves vastness, the mountain, space, silence, and Dionysiac sex as opposed to society or culture or machismo in the lowland. Ang Lee sets up the contrast in the first 70 seconds of the movie. We see a vast empty landscape at night, and at dawn a huge truck lets off a hitchhiker at a blank clutch of buildings. This is Ennis. He lounges against his prospective boss’s trailer waiting when a train comes rattling across the screen cancelling him out. Man nullified by—what? Society? Culture? The machine?

    Soon Jack arrives in his wreck of a pick-up truck and, as if to make the point about society, kicks a tire. We have two losers, drop-outs, Ang Lee’s familiar theme of the outsider. Although these two know they will be spending the summer together and haven’t met, these men’s men of the West don’t speak at all, even while the boss is giving them their instructions. Once that’s over, they finally shake hands, exchange names, and go to a bar to swap a bare minimum of information. Later that summer, after Ennis tells a bit of his life story, Jack says, “Friend, that’s more words than you’ve spoke in the last two weeks.” “Hell, that’s the most that I’ve spoke in a year!” Their silence matches the vast empty—and silent—spaces around them.

    Their boss is Aguirre (Randy Quaid). He runs a sheep ranch, and he’s hiring Jack and Ennis to guard his sheep when they are grazing for the summer up on Brokeback Mountain. An ill-tempered brute, he defines their roles for them: Ennis is to camp, cook, and sleep in a legal site, okayed by Forest Service; Jack is to guard the sheep every night (”100%”) by sleeping among them illegally three or four miles away from the legal camp. Aguirre—it’s a common Basque name, but Proulx must have known and the filmmakers surely did—Aguirre echoes a famous movie by Werner Herzog, Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972). And our Aguirre is just that. His opening words cuss out the two men unfortunate enough to work for him, and he is mean to them every time he gets a chance. To my mind, he stands for society intruding on this mountaintop idyll. It’s all part of the man’s man culture of the West that Ang Lee is getting at.

    Ennis and Jack take the sheep up the mountain and begin their routine. There is a lot of talk about food because the food sent up to them from society below is awful, powdered milk and canned beans. Nature steps in; a bear breaks up their supplies. So Ennis shoots an elk and they eat that. In short, they go natural. They shave and bathe nude. They go a little crazy. (Remember Dionysus.) And one night when a storm keeps them both in the legal tent, and Ennis has gotten drunk, Jack makes a sexual advance. Ennis gets on top of him and they have sex.

     They have no words to describe what has happened, for their speech is as vacant as the landscape. “This thing.” At first they are afraid of it. “You know I ain’t queer.” “Me neither.” “It’s a one shot thing we got goin’ on here.” But it isn’t. It goes on.

    Society in the form of Aguirre’s powerful binoculars breaks into this romantic idyll. He spies what they are up to. Then Aguirre himself comes into their camp to tell Jack his uncle is dying of pneumonia. Is this a ruse to break up the pair? Jack doesn’t go to his uncle, and Aguirre then tells him his uncle got well. But soon Aguirre cuts their tour of duty a month short and sends them on their way—to town and society and a more familiar kind of life.

    Ennis marries Alma (Michelle Williams), and Jack goes back to “rodeoin’,” bull riding. At a rodeo, he meets and then marries Lureen (Anne Hathaway) whose father has a six-figure farm machine business. Both men become fathers—a major theme of Ang Lee’s.

    Four years after that first summer, Jack visits Ennis. Both eager and excited at seeing each other, they kiss passionately (and Ennis’ wife Alma sees them). They go off to a motel to have passionate sex. From then on, they meet every couple of months to go back out into the wilderness—nature—and have secret sex. And love. There is real tenderness as well as passion between these two inarticulate men. Ennis’ marriage falls apart, but he has to work and can’t meet Jack more than a few times a year. “This is a goddamn bitch of an unsatisfactory situation,” says Jack. “I can’t make it on a couple of high-altitude fucks once or twice a year!” Ennis says they just have to stand it. “Stand it for how long?” “As long as we can ride it.” That’s just like Jack’s bull riding.

    They assume that no one knows what they are doing, and they have to assume that. None of this sex or love can they express in the relentlessly macho culture of Wyoming or Texas. “This thing grabs hold of us again in the wrong place in the wrong time and we’re dead.” Violence comes naturally in that world, as in their own idiom, “a one-shot thing.” Nobody pays much attention at a 4th of July party when Ennis brutally slugs a couple of foul-mouthed bikers using profanity around his wife and children. The morning their stint on Brokeback Mountain ends, Jack and Ennis wrestle and have a serious fight. That fight leaves them with the bloodstained shirts that will be the ultimate memento of their love.

    Repeatedly Jack urges a plan: they would buy a ranch and run it together. And repeatedly Ennis replies that it wouldn’t work. They would be killed (as, when Ennis was a boy, a gay man was lynched, and Ennis’ father made him view the corpse so that he wouldn’t turn gay).”

    When one of Ennis’ postcards comes back marked “Deceased,” he calls Lureen to find out what happened to Jack. As she describes a weird fatal accident while changing a tire, Ang Lee gives us a scene of Jack being beaten to death by three men, a scene found in Annie Proulx’s short story. Proulx tells us how the scene fits in, but Lee doesn’t. Is it what Lureen really knows instead of the lie she is telling Ennis? Or is it simply Ennis’ imagining and Lureen’s story is true? Or is lynching the fact but known only to the filmmaker and us? I think Ang Lee leaves the scene ambiguous simply to comment on this macho society of men showing off a strong, silent, violent masculinity.

     If a man is secure in his sexuality, why does he have to torment or even kill someone with a different sexuality? A gay man poses a threat to an insecure male, a man whose culture is constantly asking him, Are you man enough? Psychological research shows that vehement homophobia defends against repressed and feared homosexual impulses. In the same way, Ennis’ violent attack on the profane bikers at the 4th of July party defends against their saying he had stopped having sex with his wife. (He had.)

    Society, unlike Brokeback Mountain, imposes rules and rituals. Aguirre tries to impose his rules on the boys. He bawled out Ennis when a storm killed a lot of sheep, “like I was s’posed to control the weather.” Everywhere you turn in society there are rituals, like events at a rodeo or the recitations of the divorce court or a rule about who carves the Thanksgiving turkey. But the important rules are the rules for masculinity, like the rituals and the brutality of the rodeo contrasted to the feminized role of the rodeo clown. On dates, there are dancing rules. Society reaches even onto the mountain: the Forest Service and Aguirre try to impose rules, although the boys ignore them. The sheep have paint brands to mark the different herds. In everyday life, there’s a uniform and posture: jeans, cowboy hat, cowboy boots, and swagger. Be self-contained. Don’t speak unless necessary. Except for Jack’s loudmouth father-in-law who proclaims himself the “stud duck” in the small pond of Jack’s home.

    He’s breaking the rules for fatherly behavior, and that’s part of this picture of masculinity, feeling free to violate the rules. Aguirre ignores the Forest Service’s rules, and once on the nature side of things the boys object. “Aguirre got no right makin’ us do somethin’ against the rules.” The two killings of homosexuals break the rules, as do the two bikers when they talk dirty in front of Ennis’ wife and children. In this macho society you show your masculinity by violating rules.

    Women and domesticity are subordinate as in the line from the old westerns, “make the West safe for women and children.” When Lureen tries to stop her son from watching tv during Thanksgiving dinner, the domineering father-in-law says, “You want your boy to grow up to be a man, don’t you . . .  Boys should watch football.” Ennis’ father had taken him to see the results of a brutal lynching of a gay man to instill a proper masculinity. And there’s the threat of violence just under the surface, should you seem less than macho. Ang Lee has been preoccupied with fathers in all his films. Here, all the fathers, Jack’s, Ennis’, Lureen’s, spoil their children’s other loves by imposing this macho masculinity. In the last scene of this film, as if to balance all the rest, a father hesitantly brings himself to behave rightly.

    The society side of Ang Lee’s ledger is marked by numbers and money, starting with Aguirre’s “100%” and his quotas for losing sheep. Then there are the numbers timing the rodeo events or Jack and Alma’s calculating (even as they are making love!) how much they can afford as rent. Lureen’s father sells “hundred thousand dollar tractors.” Lureen works in his business, “punchin’ numbers in her add machine. Hundred X zeros. Her eyes gettin’ smaller and smaller.” No vastness of nature there or when Jack, now rich, grumbles about taxes and inflation.

    The last scene opens with Ennis sticking a “1” and a “7” on his mailbox. His daughter (Kate Mara) arrives and tells him she is getting married. (Heterosex is okay in this society.) Ennis hesitantly agrees to come to the wedding on such-and-such a date (more numbers). She leaves, and he embraces a windbreaker she left behind. Then he holds the nested shirts that are the only memorial to his life’s love, taboo unlike his daughter’s. Teary-eyed, he straightens the postcard of Brokeback Mountain that he has tacked on his closet door where he will see it every day. He says, “Jack, I swear . . . “ leaving us to imagine what he swears. That he regrets not having adopted Jack’s plan? That he regrets the way the world is? The way that he and Jack were? Lee’s last shot puts side by side the veneer inside of Ennis’ cramped trailer and the vast flat plain outside, a final statement of theme.

    For me, Brokeback Mountain evokes no controversy, but a gentle, even tender melancholy. To give this film its right value, I think we need to sidestep the question of gay rights. We need to see this as a movie about a natural world that includes all sexualities and an artificial world that defines sex as machismo. When we see Brokeback Mountain that way, we can appreciate all of this moving, deeply ethical, and very beautiful film, not just the problems of its gay men.

Opening shot: the vast, silent West


Jack and his truck

Aguirre gives orders


Alma sees a kiss

Lureen and her adding machine

The stud duck

Jack's being killed?

Be a father!

The last shot

Enjoying: Trace the numbers that define the macho society in this film. They will lead you to appreciate Ang Lee's subtlety and skill.