English Title: Brokeback Mountain
Country of Origin: USA
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Ang Lee
Producer(s): James Schamus
Cinematographer: Rodrigo Prieto
Art Director: Judy Becker
Runtime: 132 minutes
Volume: American - Hollywood
Two unemployed labourers, rodeo rider Jack Twist and ranch hand Ennis del Mar, are employed by sheepman, Joe Aguire, to tend his flock high on Brokeback Mountain. Their isolation encourages a playful friendship until, drunk one night, Jake makes a hesitant sexual advance. After moments of uncertainty, Ennis responds passionately. Years after they part, Ennis’ marriage to his teenage sweetheart, Alma, and Jack’s to Lureen become increasingly tested by the repressed passion between the men. During one of their regular fishing trips Jack instigates for the pair, Ennis refuses his suggestion that they partner a ranch together. Alma’s suspicion of her husband’s relationship with Jack leads to divorce after she witnesses them in a passionate embrace. Jack’s marriage continues but with the suggestion of a relationship with another man. When Ennis learns of Jack’s death – possibly from a homophobic attack – he seeks to carry out his final wishes and return his ashes to Brokeback Mountain. Jack’s father refuses but his mother grants him the return of Ennis’ blooded shirt, kept by Jack as a memento of their love. In a coda, Ennis’ estranged adult daughter invites him to her wedding. He places the sweater she leaves behind with Jack’s shirt.
By the turn of the millennium, the production of Hollywood Westerns had all but ceased, with surprisingly few attempts to ride the commercial and critical success of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992). In contrast, dramas with at least Western themes, if only arguably genre films at all, featured on the edge of Hollywood, in the so-called American Independent Cinema. Arthouse film-makers like Jim Jarmusch explored Native America in the postmodern Western, Dead Man (1995) and Maggie Greenwald’s feminist approach to the genre, The Ballad of Little Jo (1993), one of the few Westerns authored by a woman, views the West as a positive space for women where they could break away from urban family constrictions to find independence. Though Brokeback Mountain was a crossover film – finding a popular audience by word of mouth, thereby turning a healthy profit in the commercial sector – it is best considered in this context, as an art film reflexively exploring the Western’s all-male partnership.
Westerns have conventionally privileged the society of the all-male group, in which the hero’s relationship with a sidekick pal coexists with that of the heroine. That the male partnership is implicitly understood as homosocial has been emphasized not just by the hero’s undoubtedly heterosexual romance with the heroine, but also by the ritual age differences between the male pairs, commonly rendering them as father/son relationships: in series Westerns, a younger Hopalong Cassidy is partnered by a grizzled Gabby Hayes; among the classics, Walter Brennan’s reprises his toothless supportive role in The Far Country (1954) in at least Rio Bravo (1959). Where age differences are less marked, though, homo-erotic relationships become possible. In some Westerns, they are explicit: for instance in the boudoir setting of that between Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn in Warlock (1959). What is original about Brokeback Mountain is that it dares to explore the repressed desires in male partnerships that the Western otherwise relentlessly (one critic says ‘tirelessly’) suppresses.
The homosexual romance between Ennis and Jack is itself subject to repressions – their own, their wives’, families’ and those of the culture around them. The film is set in the mid-West between 1963 and 1981, on the edge of the gay civil rights movement, practices of ‘coming out’ and, more recently, efforts to authorize homosexual relationships in civil marriages. It explores the damage to individual psyches of an active homophobia, not only around the central relationship but also within it. Ennis and Jack discover they can only be together when alone. At all other times they compromise, their only moments of intimacy, however, displaced into play fights or embraces which, cruelly, will be witnessed by the likes of the suspecting Alma and homophobic Aguire. They punish themselves relentlessly for sharing the ‘love that dare not speak its name’, such that the homophobia of others is but a symptom of their own fears.
The culture, too, is keen to punish itself for its intolerance. Jack’s father prefers to despise his own son rather than acknowledge the nature of his male friendships; Alma would rather deny her love for a good man than come to terms with his sexuality. The film itself also struggles with an ambiguity that could be interpreted as repression – refusing to take a stand on whether the identity of the love between Ennis and Jack is indeed homosexual: the fact of their marriages and children suggests they are at least bisexual. Though Art Cinema characteristically refuses to pin down meaning, the ending seems explicit about the traumatic experience that is being ‘in the closet’. Though popular beyond expectation, garnering awards and critical plaudits, Brokeback Mountain has unsurprisingly therefore been the subject of controversy – from critic, gay and homophobe alike – on the very complex issue of the cultural politics of sexual identity. A brave and emotionally-moving film, this is the Romeo and Juliet story of the modern age.
Author of this review: David Lusted