Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway, Randy Quaid, Linda Cardellini, Anna Faris. Directed by Ang Lee. Focus.
Decent Films Ratings
Content advisory: A strong but restrained, brief homoerotic encounter (no nudity); pervasive homoerotic themes; a couple of heterosexual bedroom scenes with brief female nudity; some nonsexual nudity; much objectionable language including profanity and obscenity; brief violent and disturbing images seen in flashback; a gruesome account of a murder-mutilation.
By Steven D. Greydanus
Among the first images of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain are a series of shots of men in cowboy hats with heads downturned, their faces wholly obscured by the wide brims. In these opening shots, the cowboy hat, that icon of American manhood, serves as a kind of mask. In a sense, the film suggests, the wearers are hiding behind those hats even when their heads are raised. Nor are they the only ones.
Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhall) are a pair of poor ranch hands who meet when they both get a job watching a flock of sheep on a Wyoming promontory called Brokeback Mountain. Ennis is taciturn and Jack coltish and awkward, but they slowly begin to know one another.
“My mama, she believes in the Pentecost,” remarks Jack, by way of explanation of a snatch of Gospel music he’s just facetiously belted out.
“What exactly is the Pentecost?” asks Ennis, idly curious. “My folks, they was Methodist.”
Whatever persuasion Jack’s upbringing was, he’s not entirely sure what Pentecost is either. Actually, he seems to have the Apocalypse in mind: “I guess it’s when the world ends… and folks like you ’n’ me march off to hell.”
“Speak f’y’self,” returns Ennis. ”You may be a sinner… but I haven’t had the opportunity.”
That’s about to change. Jack and Ennis have months of long, cold mountain days and nights ahead of them; and, as their employer for the moment will later remark, they find a way to pass the time. The terms of their employment call for them to spend the nights separately, one at the campsite and one roughing it among the sheep. This isn’t quite legal, but then Jack and Ennis aren’t particularly scrupulous — about the law or their agreement with their employer. One particularly cold night, they wind up sharing the tent — and then, much to the shock of Ennis, amid fumblings with belt buckles, Jack unceremoniously offers him the opportunity to sin, and he takes it.
In one of the film’s postscripts, Ennis happens to meet that mother of Jack’s, as well as his father, who may or may not believe in Pentecost. Jack’s parents apparently have some idea of the sort of relationship their son had with Ennis, and Mr. Twist seems to take a dim view of the whole business and of his son in general, from the latter’s many unrealized plans to his wishes regarding arrangements in the event of his demise. Mrs. Twist, however, seems more sympathetic and understanding, and offers to let Ennis see the room Jack grew up in, which she keeps just as he left it. When Ennis emerges from the room with a memento, she puts it in a bag for him without a word.
Does this scene suggest that Mrs. Twist, as a true Christian, accepted her son without judgment for what he was, and likewise accepts this stranger and his relationship with her son in the same way? Does she love the sinner and hate the sin, or is she not particularly bothered by either? Or could it be that Mrs. Twist isn’t necessarily particularly devout or well-formed in her faith after all — since, for example, her own son didn’t know the end of the world from the Church’s birthday?
The ambiguity of the scene, and of the characterization, is a mark of the distance between Brokeback Mountain and a film like Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters, in which all the characters come neatly labeled as victim, hypocrite, accomplice, abuser, etc. The Magdalene Sisters is a work of uncomplicated agitprop; Brokeback Mountain is a work of art, more concerned with telling a story about characters than with making sure that the viewer feels a certain way about a moral issue.
That’s not to say that Brokeback Mountain doesn’t have a point of view. It does have a point of view — a profoundly problematic one, one that makes it potentially far more insidious than mere propaganda. All the same, it doesn’t commit the artistic fraud of shaping every single element in its story to move the viewer’s sympathies in one and only one direction. That sort of one-sidedness is increasingly the single thing that I find most quickly sabotages a film’s persuasiveness; nothing else so glaringly announces that the filmmaker himself hasn’t really put his own point of view to the test, and doesn’t trust the audience to see things his way unless he stacks the deck in his own favor.
What I often find most compelling is a filmmaker bold enough to stack the deck against himself — to insist on hearing the case for the opposite point of view, on seeing those on the other side as human beings rather than comfortable stereotypes. Tim Robbins did this in Dead Man Walking when he allowed the grieving relatives of Poncelet’s victims to be sympathetic, suffering souls rather than vengeful ogres.
Brokeback Mountain isn’t as exquisitely even-handed as Dead Man Walking, but it keeps the cards sufficiently mixed to feel far more honest than The Magdalene Sisters. Ennis and Jack each marry, and their ongoing affair is allowed to be at least as morally problematic as any other extramarital affair. A lesser filmmaker might have painted the women as nags or harpies, but Ang allows Ennis’s wife Alma (Michelle Williams) in particular a great deal of poignancy, and doesn’t avoid showing the pain that Ennis’s betrayal causes her as well as the children. Jack’s wife Lureen (Anne Hathaway), a rodeo princess and heavy-equipment heiress, is likewise appealing and sympathetic, though less developed as a character, and lacking a satisfying character arc.
An early bedroom scene between Ennis and Alma suggests some real mutual affection and desire; at the same time, clearly the two are somewhat at odds sexually. Alma wants to be with Ennis face to face, a position perhaps suggestive of the inherently complementary and interpersonal nature of the marital act. Ennis, though, is necessarily used to doing things in a way that sidesteps complementarity, and seems to prefer the interlocking of bodies without the face-to-face intimacy his wife desires.
They must not get it entirely wrong, for in time there are children. The director’s subtlety falters here as he depicts parenthood with one opprobrious image after another: colicky babies crying; repeated shots of a harried Ennis struggling with a child in each arm; quarrels over who will watch the children; a wincingly embarrassing moment involving an accident at a grocery store that would have been bad enough if Alma had only been at the store as a shopper rather than as a clerk. By contrast, Ennis and Jack’s “fishing trip“ getaways are all stunning mountain vistas and relaxed conversations, accompanied by serene guitar strumming on the Gustavo Santaolalla soundtrack.
It’s heavy-handed for awhile, though Ang eventually recovers. Ennis’s marriage goes south, but his screaming babies grow up nicely into girlhood and young womanhood, so parenthood is allowed to have some reward. Meanwhile, Jack becomes increasingly jealous and resentful over the scarcity of their time together, and finds outlets for his restless appetites where he can, cruising for male prostitutes in Juarez and taking up with another married man. (Interestingly, he tells Ennis about the affair, but says it’s with the wife rather than the husband — a shrewd lie, apparently, judging from Ennis’s unthreatened amusement. By contrast, Ennis turns cold with fury at hints of Jack’s trips to Mexico.)
Of course, all this jealousy and frustration is ultimately rooted in the furtive, surreptitious nature of their relationship, which in turn is largely grounded in the social realities of their place and time. Jack harbors a secret wish for a different life with the two of them together on a ranch somewhere, but Ennis is convinced that two men living together can only end badly. Indeed, he knows of such a case from his childhood, since his father made a point of showing him the mutilated bodies of two local men killed in a gay-bashing attack. “For all I know, he did the job,“ Ennis adds.
Toward the end of the film is a similar act of violence, though here Ang’s directorial touch is at its most delicate, leaving the suggestion of homophobia implicit, even debatable. Where a heavy-handed director trying to drive home a message would have rubbed our noses in the violence, letting us hear the hate-filled epithets, the murderous taunts, Ang is content to suggest. He doesn’t even make it absolutely clear that the fleeting images we see necessarily represent what really happened, rather than another character’s guesses or imaginings. The character in question isn’t sure what really happened, and neither, perhaps, are we.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, alas, is one relatively minor but crucial respect in which Ang’s subtlety and even-handedness largely fail him. Whenever it considers straight men, Brokeback Mountain begins to verge toward Magdalene Sisters–style prejudicial stereotyping. The film allows its sexually omnivorous protagonists to be morally ambiguous, and its straight women can be likable or sympathetic. Yet essentially every straight male character in the film is not only unsympathetic, but unsympathetic precisely in his embodiment of masculinity.
At its most extreme, the film’s indictment of masculinity takes the form of deadly homophobic violence, as in the brutal episode recounted by Ennis and in the murderous images toward the end of the film. Closely related is the pedagogy of Ennis’s father, with his horrific attempt to instill manly attitudes in his son by exposing him to the sight of the victims.
Not as despicable, but in the same vein, is Jack’s overbearing father-in-law, whose concern for his grandson’s budding masculinity causes him to undermine Jack’s parental authority by turning on a football game for the lad after Jack had just turned it off. “Want your boy to grow up to be a man, don’t you, daughter?“ he drawls to Lureen. “Boy should watch football.“ How little the old man thinks of Jack’s masculinity has made only too plain — though Jack surprises them all, sharply reasserting his authority and putting his father-in-law in his place, to the silent but gratified approval of his wife.
Other examples include Jack’s own vaguely disapproving father; the sheep magnate of Brokeback, whose disdain for Jack is meant to be partly professional and partly homophobic; a rodeo clown who contemptuously rebuffs a pass from Jack; and even a random pickup-truck driver whom a volatile Ennis shockingly attacks and beats in response to the former angrily calling him an obscene name. Though the truck driver’s macho belligerency doesn’t remotely warrant the violence that follows, it does perpetuate the film’s pattern of hostile or disapproving macho-man stereotypes of masculinity.
What prevents all this from turning Brokeback Mountain into a Magdalene Sisters–style tract is simply that Ang is far less interested in wallowing in the evils of heterosexism and homophobia than Mullan was in wallowing in the evils of the Magdalene asylums. None of Ang’s men-behaving-badly becomes a caricature like Mullan’s nuns, and the film isn’t really about them anyway.
Other than a passing comment from Ennis about the “fire-and-brimstone crowd,“ religion is almost totally absent. On the one hand, this means that homophobic attitudes isn’t particularly attributed to Christian teaching or belief. On the other hand, it means that the range of moral issues relating to Jack and Ennis’s relationship is rhetorically limited to conflicting commitments to their spouses and children — and, of course, the intolerance of society itself.
The meaning of a work of art cannot be reduced to a thesis or proposition; if it can, it is not art but propaganda, a tract. Brokeback Mountain is not a tract. Still, there is a perspective at work in its depiction of these characters and events. The film does not argue, but assumes, that the pain suffered by men like Jack and Ennis and those around them is the result of what is and isn’t permitted by entrenched social attitudes of intolerance and hate, which constrain such men from following their bliss, and push them into conventional arrangements that are ultimately truly satisfactory to no one. Compared to this film, the euthanasia advocacy of Million Dollar Baby, the anti-Catholicism of The Magdalene Sisters and and the abortion activism of The Cider House Rules are practically child’s play.
In the end, in its easygoing, nonpolemical way, Brokeback Mountain is nothing less than an indictment not just of heterosexism but of masculinity itself, and thereby of human nature as male and female. It’s a jaundiced portrait of maleness in crisis — a crisis extending not only to the sexual identities of the two central characters, but also to the validity of manhood as exemplified by every other male character in the film. It may be the most profoundly anti-western western ever made, not only post-modern and post-heroic, but post-Christian and post-human.