Tragically Complex: An Analysis of Brokeback Mountain

As a preface to those who might be inclined to judge my morality as a result of reading this post: This post is not about gay rights or my support of the gays. It is not a sermon on gay acceptance and tolerance. This post is merely an observance and a comment on a piece of the literary world which I deem beautiful. For those who would prefer to judge my taste in movies rather than my moral equilibrium, go ahead – if you’ve seen the movie, that is. If you haven’t seen the movie, I’ll just warn you now that it would probably be a waste of your time to read this analysis because I am not going to summarize or fill in any trivial details for those who might not be in the know.

Tonight, a good friend and I, in an effort to spend some quality time together before I move out of the state, are going to watch my current favorite movie, Brokeback Mountain. In honor of this epic event, I have decided to write this post that I’ve had notes on for a while but have not ever fleshed out before now. So here I give you, my analysis of Brokeback Mountain, the genre-breaking movie directed by Ang Lee and based on Annie Proulx’s short story and starring the late and wonderfully talented Heath Ledger (as well as the still-alive and not-as-talented-but-still-tolerable Jake Gyllenhaal).

I went to the theater to see this movie without any expectations other than those of being somewhat of a “rebel,” since I was still at the time attending one of the most conservative universities in the country. In 2005, my opinions on the rightness (or wrongness) of homosexuality were shaky at best but condemning at worst. It wasn’t until 2008/2009 that I finally confronted and solidified my convictions about the controversial subject, but I think it was in 2005, after I saw this movie for the first time, that the wheels first began to turn.

Like I said, when I sat down in the movie theater, feeling proud of myself for being so liberal by supporting such a controversial cinematic endeavor, I had no idea this flick would turn out to hold the number-one spot in my list of favorite movies for at least the next four years. (It hasn’t been replaced yet.) I have watched Brokeback Mountain numerous times since then, and every time, I never fail to be impressed by some nuance or other. If you read the short story it was based on, I think you’ll come away underwhelmed, as I was. But the movie is phenomenal, and here is why.

First and foremost, this is a love story. It’s not a story about gay men. It’s not a story about rebellion. It’s not a story about cheating. It’s not a story about ranching, farming, or rodeoing. Those are all minor components of a bigger picture. It’s a story of love and heartbreak, pure and simple. It’s a story about broken families and unmet expectations and bitter disappointments. And it’s a tragedy.

The element of homosexuality is what makes this movie beautiful. The homosexuality in this story lends a layer of depth to the plot that no straight love story I’ve ever read or seen has been able to capture. (That’s not to say that heterosexual love stories will never be as good. I’m just saying that in this one instance, this particular example, this story could never have been what it has become without the gay plot line.)

What this storyline has going for it to begin with is that it smashes into oblivion all the existent stereotypes about gay men – those existent stereotypes being that gay men are effeminate, weak, and flamboyant. Before it was okay to be openly homosexual in society, there must have been scads of closeted gay men all over the world who were as mold-breaking as they come – masculine, strong, burly, quiet. Brokeback Mountain gently tells the story of two such men who are powerless under the indictment of a society that says they cannot be in love. So they do what they feel they must, what the world demands of them. They marry women and they work and they produce children.

But that is not enough, and they are both powerless to deny this truth forever. So eventually, their hearts pull them back to each other, and they weakly maintain their love via clandestine mountaintop rendezvouses that mollify both but satiate neither. When they are together, even when they are alone atop the mountain, with no prying or judgmental societal eyes, they still talk gruffly and joke coarsely about the women in their lives.

On one such occasion, Ennis uses the phrase “puttin’ the blocks to” to describe the nature of the relationship between himself and a woman he has been seeing. (This wording leaves the viewer wondering whether this means that sexual interaction has occurred because the viewer has not been privy to such interaction, but this glibness from Ennis implies that there have been further encounters which the viewer may not have not seen.) Jack shows no real reaction or emotion to this news. If anything, he’s happy that Ennis might be finding contentment after his divorce from Alma. There is no jealousy here. Ennis does not expect it, and Jack does not show it.

But then, when there is mention of the possibility of Jack being with other men, Ennis loses his temper and flies off the handle. Why? Is it because Ennis (and Jack too) knows that Jack can sexually perform for his wife out of a sense of biological responsibility only but that no love exists there? And does Jack know the same about Ennis? Is there something so intrinsically different, some key emotion so palpably absent, during their sexual encounters with women than the ones with men? Ennis’s detachment from Alma, evident in his need to turn her over to her stomach during intercourse, implies that yes, there is such a difference, such an absence. And he remains sexually faithful to Jack in this sense. He does not have sex with any other men, and it is clear from his forced and detached interaction with Alma (and their subsequent divorce as well as the later ambiguity over whether he has sex with the “gal up in Riverton”) that he cannot bring himself to think of anyone but Jack in such an intimate manner.

So then, conversely, why does Jack need Mexico? And why does it show him setting up a possible rendezvous with another man – whose wife is a friend of Jack’s wife – at the man’s boss’s cabin “down on Lake Kemp”? Is it, then, just a purely physical need for Jack? Does he not feel the same love that Ennis feels? Or is it simply not enough? After all, when he and Ennis are together, Jack is so clingy, so much more so than Ennis would ever have the capability of being.

When they are together, Jack is always pushing for Ennis to leave his current life so they can get “a place” together and ranch and live together and be together all the time, an idea Ennis always rejects. This clinginess on Jack’s part implies a deeper-than-lust attachment, so the question again becomes, Why does Jack need Mexico? Perhaps Mexico is the only way Jack can forget or at least assuage, for a time, the pain he feels from being apart from Ennis. Maybe the pain is so strong and so deep that when Jack goes to Mexico, though he is not with Ennis, he sees it as an opportunity to close his eyes and imagine, momentarily, that he is with Ennis.

Ennis is your typical manly guy. He speaks few words and shows little emotion. Is he emotionally immature or closed off, a result of his upbringing? Or does he still struggle with the reality of his own sexuality? After all, after his first encounter with Jack on the mountain, he stubbornly and gruffly snorts, “You know I ain’t queer.” Then later, during one of his many mountaintop weekends with Jack, they get into a tiff, and Ennis accuses Jack, saying in a fit of anger, “You made me this way!” This implies that Jack has both enriched and ruined Ennis’s life. If it weren’t for Jack, he never would have known love, but he also would never have had to admit to himself that he is gay.

In the end, is Ennis duty-bound or just afraid? His character and his hesitance to build a life with Jack are reminiscent of the character Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind and his reluctance to run away with Scarlett O’Hara. Ashley is always railing on about his honor even though he is clearly in love with Scarlett. But all his talk about honor turns out to be a disguise for the true reason he won’t run off with Scarlett – his cowardice and his self-loathing of that cowardice within himself. In the case of Ennis del Mar, is he protecting his daughters’ perceived innocence? Staying faithful to his responsibilities? Or is he just afraid of intimacy and the truth about his own sexuality?

Just like Ashley Wilkes and Scarlett O’Hara, Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist never get to be truly happy. Jack becomes the victim of a fatal hate crime, and Ennis is left to deal with the world all by himself; left with only his precious memories of his few sporadic trysts with Jack; left with the bittersweet knowledge that Jack kept both their bloodied shirts from that very first summer on the mountain; and left with the crippling realization that he will probably never love again.

And the viewer, if not completely devoid of emotion, is left at the end with the sense of hopeless effort, the feeling of if only, and the resolute certainty that such tragedy will not befall him in his own life if he has anything to say about it.

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1 Comment

Filed under movies, reviews

One response to “Tragically Complex: An Analysis of Brokeback Mountain

  1. Pingback: “The Movie Was Better:” The 9th Deadly Sin* | A Literary Illusion

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