As I sit here writing, I am finding it hard to gather my thoughts together. Most of this essay has already been outlined, and yet I'm still not sure if it fully expresses my feelings toward Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain. I realize that although there is a certain amount of objectivity that goes into judging the merits of a film, so much of one's personal feelings for it is subjective.
I gather my thoughts and ideas together with that in mind. As much as this is an analysis of certain aspects of the film itself, it is also a personal essay; it is the “why” of the question “Why do you like this film?"
On the most basic level, I find Brokeback Mountain one of the most poignantly told love stories I've ever seen. It does not matter that we are dealing with two men instead of a man and a woman. In essence, that aspect in and of itself is irrelevant to me.
I have heard some criticize the film because it does not tell anything new, and “if it weren't two men no one would care!” First of all, the problem with that rationale is that, regardless of the characters' gender, the story is told with a meticulous care rarely found in love stories of any kind.
Second, the fact that they are two men is central to the entire film; to dismiss it offhand as a thematic criticism of Brokeback Mountain is to miss the point entirely. This argument makes little sense when applied to other films, e.g., “If E.T. were a human child instead of an alien, the movie would not be as revered as it is”; or maybe “If Boyz N the Hood was about white people, it wouldn't be as relevant.” Of course it wouldn't be; the ethnicity of the Boyz N the Hood characters is central to the story and to its power, just as the sexual orientation of the two men in Brokeback Mountain is central to its story and power.
To me, Brokeback Mountain eloquently shows us how much early 1960s Wyoming ranch hand Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and rodeo cowboy Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) love each other. As the movie unfolds, Ang Lee, and screenwriters Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry (adapting E. Annie Proulx's short story) give us every piece for why they did.
The very fact that Ennis and Jack are two men makes their love and devotion to one another all the more affecting. After all, it's easier to dismiss a love story between a man and a woman, even if there's some reason they're “not supposed to be together,” because it's taken for granted that members of the opposite sex can be romantically attracted to each other. But in Brokeback Mountain we have two men who, based on everything that society has taught them is wrong, still cannot help the way they feel.
Under society's definition, nature would preclude them from being together; however, as the film's tagline aptly states, “Love is a force of nature.” Despite the belief that death befalls those who act and feel as they do, they are unable to simply ignore or put a stop to their own actions and feelings.
Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger in Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain
People make fun of Jack Twist's line, “I wish I knew how to quit you", but that line is heartbreaking for the honesty it conveys. He literally does. In many ways, Jack's love for Ennis has done more harm than good to him. And the same goes for Ennis. It's not as if he doesn't love his wife, Alma (Michelle Williams); he does, and that's very clear. He also loves his daughters, whom he would not have had without Alma.
But despite all that, and no matter how much Ennis knows that what he's doing with Jack is essentially destroying the life he, Ennis, has built up to that point, he cannot simply let go of those feelings. That's because they are stronger, deeper, and truer than the constraints and the barriers that everyone and every thing has set up against the two of them.
Ultimately, Brokeback Mountain's real tragedy may not even be the fact that Jack dies, or that both men's families end up in shambles, but that they are disgusted with themselves for feeling the way they do. This is especially true of Ennis. One senses that it isn't until the very last scene, when Ennis utters the words “Jack, I swear” that he fully accepts himself for who he is. (As a side note, E. Annie Proulx's original short story makes the point that this was the only time in which Ennis ever swore to Jack, a point that I believe supports my theory.)
Heath Ledger's performance so perfectly encapsulates all of Ennis' thoughts and emotions that I have a hard time finding a character besides his Wyoming ranch hand for whom I have felt so strongly.
And that's just one layer of Brokeback Mountain; one layer of the film's love story. Indeed, there's another fascinating aspect to the film I'd like to discuss as well.
Some have proposed that Jack is gay in the sense that he's sexually attracted only to men. This can be attested when he goes off to find prostitutes when Ennis isn't around to provide. On the flip side is Ennis, who those same people have postulated is not “gay”; as I stated above, he obviously loves his wife. He has gotten pleasure out of being with both her and other women – later in the film, he develops a tentative “relationship” with Linda Cardellini's Cassie.
I can't say that I fully agree with this interpretation, but I think it elucidates something that's important: human sexuality is not as cut-and-dry as simply “he's gay,” or “he's straight,” or even “he's bisexual.”
An example of a recent film that attempted to convey this same message is Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right, in which Julianne Moore's character makes this exact statement. The difference is that The Kids Are All Right tells usthat is the case. By contrast, Brokeback Mountain shows it to us. Human feelings and relationships should not be as simplistically categorized as we so frequently make them out to be.
Heath Ledger's Ennis Del Mar, Jake Gyllenhaal's Jack Twist in Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain
Moving on to another area of the film, I must add that Brokeback Mountain works just as beautifully from a purely cinematic standpoint. Let me analyze one short scene as an example of the brilliance of Ang Lee's direction, Rodrigo Pietro's cinematography, and Geraldine Peroni and Dylan Tichenor's editing. (The fact that Peroni and Tichenor's film editing wasn't nominated for an Oscar is shameful.)
First, look at the picture at the top. This is right after Jack and Ennis' sheepherding job on Brokeback is finished, and they are about to leave one another for what they believe is forever. Notice that the colors are all washed out, in contrast to the vibrant colors we had seen previously on the mountain. (Next time you watch the movie, pay attention when Jack returns alone to try to get more work; notice how ominous the color palette makes the scene feel.)
Within the “farewell” scene's washed-out frame, we see two men who – even in this still – seem to have something more to say to each other. But as we can see, Ennis is looking down, away from Jack. Jack is looking at Ennis, for he is the one who invariably initiates things, pushes them further. Yet, they do not look at each other. Also, notice how the truck door is open, serving as a physical barrier between the two characters.
Next shot, we see Jack driving away, as he looks into the side view mirror. Here we see the physical distance growing between them, while it isolates Ennis both within the frame and on the road itself. The symmetry of that is contrasted with the fact that the mirror puts things at a tilt. As a result, the shot evokes a sense of confusion, of the unexpected: Where are these characters going? What will happen to them? One answer is that they are going their separate ways, both literally and metaphorically. Seeing Ennis through the sideview mirror of Jack's truck, we feel the full emotional weight of what is taking place.
Next, we see Ennis in this beautifully framed shot. Once again, he's alone; and once again he's in the middle of the frame, which follows through on the previous shot of him, this time from a different angle: we're looking at Ennis from an alleyway. Not only does this turn us into voyeurs, but the alleyway is also constraining. The colors are again washed out, in contrast to the brightly lit sky and clouds in the background. Ennis' head is facing down. Without knowing the context, this lone shot evokes the idea of a lonesome cowboy, giving us a concrete sense of Brokeback Mountain's Western influences (or neo-Western, if one prefers).
This sequence culminates in the next shot (above) of a man coming into the frame and seeing Ennis crying, throwing up, and punching a wall. Remember what I said about him being disgusted with himself? Here we see some of that; what Ennis is feeling is not just sadness and remorse at losing Jack. He – and we – know that he is about to return to Alma.
Thus, the voyeuristic set-up of the previous shot is realized in this final shot, as an unknown man watches – intrudes upon – Ennis as we have been watching (or intruding upon) him. This is where Brokeback Mountain's historical context comes directly into play, for we know how private men like Ennis and Jack had to be; how they were forced to keep their innermost feelings suppressed.
Even if one does not want to read that deeply into the alleyway sequence, on the base level it shows a man – whose outer shell is the embodiment of sheer masculine strength – brought to his knees in a position of total vulnerability. Let me reiterate that the shot being framed from the alleyway is crucial to the feeling it evokes.
I should also point out that throughout this entire scene, no music can be heard until the very end, right before the setting changes. The absence of music makes the sequence all the more somber, while giving it more emotional weight as well. Ang Lee opted to refrain from manufacturing an emotional response from the audience; instead, he allows Ennis' plight to resonate organically.
Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger in Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain
Now, leaving behind its technical and analytical aspects, I should add that Brokeback Mountain reached me on a deeper level – in a manner that's all but impossible to explain – like no other movie had done before.
In high school, I always loved movies; yet, I always looked at them passively. Only rarely did I become involved in the events or with the characters I saw on screen. In fact, prior to Brokeback Mountain I can't think of a single instance when I felt a profound emotionalreaction to a film. I remember getting a little choked up while watching the end of Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia, but that's as close as it ever got to my becoming emotionally invested in situations taking place in a movie.
I watched Brokeback Mountain with my father on opening weekend back in late 2005 – though we had actually gone to see Capote instead. When we tried to buy tickets, we realized there was only one showing of Capote four or five hours later. Brokeback Mountain, however, was playing in just an hour; so, we bought two tickets and went to Borders to wait.
Since at the store they had a display with E. Annie Proulx's short story, my father and I each grabbed a copy and read it while we waited to see the movie, which had been getting phenomenal reviews. Curiously, I remember feeling underwhelmed by the short story. I thought to myself, “I don't even know if I'm excited to see this movie anymore.” But since we had already bought the tickets, there wasn't really any turning back.
After the hour passed, we went in. As I sat there watching Brokeback Mountain unfold, something changed within me. I don't know what caused it exactly, but I remember that I started crying when Gustavo Santaolalla's “The Wings” began playing while Jack and Ennis are at the campfire. I had never, ever cried because of a movie. And frankly, I did not understand how or why anyone would. Still, as I sat there in the theater, I could not contain my tears.
Eventually, I stopped crying, but the tears began streaming down once again when Ennis collects Jack's shirt and hugs it, fighting to hold on to the man he loved. I shed more tears at the end of the film, when Ennis opens his closet door, looks at the shirt, and the credits slowly start to roll.
I don't know why, but ever since that first time I saw Brokeback Mountain, my entire movie-watching experience has been radically different. After that, I have revisited movies I had seen before; suddenly, I was looking at them in a new light; at times, I was able to connect with them where before I had been emotionally and/or intellectually detached.
In addition, whether or not I'm watching a movie for the first time, I have been able to find layers to characters and settings that would have been out of my reach before. In essence, Brokeback Mountain made me realize how much I truly love the art of film. It also inspired me to start writing about it.
I mustered the courage to start posting my film commentaries online only in 2008 or whereabouts, but I had never considered writing about movies prior to Brokeback Mountain. In a profound way, that same-sex love story set in the American West made me realize there were tangible differences between bad cinema, good cinema, and great cinema. Needless to say, I'm fully aware that my Brokeback Mountain experience was exceptional, for having such a visceral response to any film is something quite unique.
Even though I cannot fully explain my personal reaction to the film, I must credit the filmmakers for it. Had Brokeback Mountain not been crafted the way it was, I find it impossible to believe that I would have been so deeply affected by it. After all, I had felt quite unenthusiastic after reading E. Annie Proulx's short story.
I have watched Brokeback Mountain many times since that first viewing. My experience has been different each time, but the film's power has never been lost. As we grow, our experiences change; our hope is that they will change not for the worse, but for the better. Thanks to Brokeback Mountain, I can happily say that mine have been forever changed for the better.
© Nathan Donarum
Photos: Focus Features