Film: review

Brokeback Mountain

Brokeback Mountain
Directed by Ang Lee
 
2005, U.S. — 134 minutes, color — Drama

Two cowboys are sustained by their deep love for each other, even as they marry and raise families during the 1960s and '70s.

Review

ImageBrokeback Mountain's tagline gets it right: "Love is a force of nature."

Exactly.

More than just a landmark gay-themed film, it is a work which lets us experience, with heartbreaking fullness, the love of two cowboys. Their passion is largely unspoken yet profound and enduring, the force which sustains their lives. This film recreates a very particular time and place, Wyoming in the 1960s and '70s, but the emotions which sweep Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) through the years are ones which anyone – gay or straight, of any gender – will understand.

Director Ang Lee (The Wedding Banquet – another landmark gay film, Sense and Sensibility, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) has pared the tale to its dramatic and visual essentials, letting us connect on a deep level with these two achingly real lovers. Lee is working from a flawless screenplay, written by Larry McMurtry (whose novels include The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, and Lonesome Dove) and Diana Ossana from a short story by E. Annie Proulx (her 1993 novel The Shipping News won both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award). The screenplay for Brokeback Mountain was written years ago, but the project nervously went through several directors – Hollywood supports GLBT causes... as far as the box office – until Lee committed to it. All of the performances which Lee inspires, from Ledger and Gyllenhaal to their wives, children and families, are unforced and utterly believable. The two leads bring enormous depth to their roles of, as Proulx describes them in the first sentence of her story, two "high-school drop-out country boys with no prospects, brought up to hard work and privation, both rough-mannered, rough-spoken, inured to the stoic life."

In a December 15, 2005 Associated Press interview, Proulx expressed her admiration for Gyllenhaal, and added that "Heath Ledger ... got inside the story more deeply than I did. All that thinking about the character of Ennis that was so hard for me to get, Ledger just was there. He did indeed move inside the skin of the character, not just in the shirt but inside the person. It was remarkable."

The authenticity which Lee achieves not only grounds the film, but also helps make it more than a mere "gay cowboy movie," although there already have been several extraordinary GLBT Film Westerns. Its honesty also allows it to become more than a gay-male riff on a romantic tragedy of "star-cross'd lovers," like Romeo and Juliet.

Jack and Ennis are so particularized – down to minute gestures, like Jack's tiny nervous cough when, in an early scene with Ennis, he's slightly criticizing his father – that they allow the film to take on a universal dimension. These two "gay cowboys" could be forbidden lovers of any gender, in any historical or cultural setting, who defy the hypocritical dictates which would separate them. Their defiance comes not through public protest but quietly, through living their lives. Yet this film wisely never preaches; it allows us to read this love story however we will, even as a simple reminder to seize happiness, before it slips away.

The unexpectedly widespread appeal of this film, including rural areas, might be explained by the fact that it gives those viewers uncomfortable with gay characters plenty of time to get to know Jack and Ennis – who not only don't quote Oscar Wilde witticisms, they barely got through high school and don't talk much – before we see their sexual, and profoundly romantic, connection. (People who disapprove of "homosexuals" invariably stereotype them as nothing but lust on two legs.) But Brokeback Mountain goes much further than its relatively discreet sex scene, allowing us to see the full, complex humanity of these men, played out over two decades. Yes, Jack and Ennis do some pretty shitty things to each other, the women and children who love them, and themselves – but then, in our own ways, don't we all?

Another part of the film's power comes from having characters live and work in a setting rarely used in GLBT-themed, or any other, films: the literal world of nature, as well as rural towns. The scintillation of New York City seems a lot farther than 2,000 miles away. Brokeback Mountain itself is part of a limitless range in Wyoming (although the picture was shot in Canada). And it's not pretty. Rather than some stock wall-calendar view, Lee reveals Brokeback as what it is: a rough, scraggly and inhospitable place, where torrential hail and devastating snow storms can come out of nowhere, only to melt away a few hours later. There is no cinematographic glitz, just the revelation of what this world is like. The landscape is as unforced, natural, and evolving, as Jack and Ennis's love. Brokeback is simply the place where they meet, employed as the two sheepherders sent to live alone all summer, to protect the huge, wayward flock from coyotes. Jack isn't so great with a gun, so it's a really good thing Ennis knows how to, er, shoot straight.

By showing us how much, both literally and metaphorically, a part of nature these two men are, when they finally make love – one freezing night when they're forced together to keep warm – it seems inevitable. The tension between Ennis and Jack makes the scene real, as does the lack of fetishization of their bodies: ruggedly, unforcedly handsome – yes, but male models – not in this picture. We also see them gradually, but inexorably, age during twenty years. (Pardon a literary digression, but their initial love scene brought to mind the pivotal moment in Virgil's 2,000-year-old epic Aeneid, when Aeneas – compare the name Ennis – and Queen Dido are trapped in a cave during a ferocious storm, make love, and begin their tragic love affair; Virgil's Eclogue II is a rueful idyll of same-sex love in the world of nature. Although I wanted to share this comparison, much to the film's credit, and despite the impeccable novelistic credentials of its screenwriters, there is nothing self-consciously literary about Brokeback Mountain.)

After seeing the film, it's easy to imagine the countless ways in which the story could have been cheapened, whether by having Jack and Ennis emote more, or giving them explanatory dialogue beyond what they would naturally say, or inserting speechifying moments about social injustice, or having shrewish, as opposed to understandable and real, wives. But this film lets the story, and its many resonant silences, speak for themselves. Instead of say, Robert Mulligan's Same Time, Next Year (1978), a pleasant movie with a similar structure – it's about a man and woman who reunite once each year, for a quarter century, to continue their adulterous affair – we have a new romantic masterpiece with the power of David Lean's Brief Encounter (1945; written by gay playwright/ composer/ actor Noël Coward).

ImageLee's subtle greatness as a filmmaker can also be seen in the way he uses settings, and cinematic space, to reveal Ennis's journey. This is done with such naturalness that it never smacks of cheap symbolism. We see Ennis move from the immensely open, and unprotected, space of Brokeback, to a series of increasingly constrictive residences. With his family he moves from a shack on the plains to an apartment in the small town; later, on his own, he winds up in a dilapidated trailer. In the final moments, we see him at the trailer's closet, where he lovingly, heartbreakingly, hangs Jack's shirt inside his own, offering it the tenderness and protection he had been unable to extend to the man he lived. There is also a narrow view glimpsed through the window. Whether GLBT or straight, we can all understand the steep price of the closet, of lying about who you are and what you love; but outside, there is only the flat, dull, endless plains. And in between, there is a thumbtacked postcard of a mountain – which may or may not be Brokeback itself – further reminding us of how far down we have come from that first transformative summer in the open. But even with all of these notes of what gay author Henry David Thoreau, in Walden, called "quiet desperation," those final moments seem not mocking but poignant – achingly and universally human.

An aspect of Brokeback Mountain which may explain its enormous appeal is the implicit narrator, which selects what we see and hear. The guiding intelligence is both omniscient and deeply humane, in a remarkably down-to-earth and non-judgmental way. (By contrast, recall when Ennis tells his wife that he doesn't want to go to church to listen to some "fire and brimstone" sermon, which would reflect a very different form of Omniscience.) The narrator not only shows us the action, it allows us, in a few brief but telling instances, to actually go inside the main characters' minds, as with Ennis's childhood memories and, late in the film, his vision (or is it?) of Jack.

Such narrative speculations aside, Ang Lee's direction – craftsmanship raised to the level of art – has been so all-embracing, if quiet, that here in the final scene we can fully enter into Ennis's thoughts and feelings, as he stands alone with Jack's shirt and twenty years of memories. Our individual bond with Ennis, which has grown throughout the film, is now complete, as is his intimacy and love with Jack. Whoever we are, whatever our orientation, wherever we live in the world, we have come to know the true heart of another person. The great, and gay, author E.M. Forster wrote in Howards End about what you might say is the secret of life – a secret intimately known to the creators of this film: "only connect."

Unfortunately, not all people can allow themselves to experience such a connection. This film is so disturbing to social conservatives not because it's a gay film, of which there are hundreds, and not even because it's so popular – but because it's popular for the reasons which send them into a collective hissy fit. It humanizes gay people; and it's hard to hate something real, as opposed to some monstrous fantasy figure (on whom a group can project its own most-feared, and least-understood, inner demons). In brief, Brokeback Mountain is so scary because it's so true. And part of that truth comes from the fullness with which Ennis's life, both external and internal/psychological, is revealed; and all without a single moment of 'liberal preaching.' If the film were simply, even beautifully, a tale of requited same-sex love – as in Maurice or Ang Lee's wonderful earlier gay-themed film, The Wedding Banquet – it would not disturb the right-wing so much, or perhaps move so many diverse audiences to tears. Even in rural areas, this film did better opening week box office than Hollywood blockbusters.

But just as the vast, both beautiful and merciless, landscape of Brokeback Mountain is presented whole, so is Ennis's life, strengths and cowardice and all. On the one hand, this can be seen as an example of pathos, even tragedy (since, in the classical definition, his self-blindness is what brings on his own terrible – lonely – fate). But on another hand this critical perspective gets to the heart of the film, where honesty, as an absolute ethical value, is as important as compassion. We understand and care deeply about Ennis, for all his mistakes. But in coming to know him, we also see the challenge which this film sets for each one of us. It inspires us to do better, to not deny who we are and to strive for a personal integrity which includes self-acceptance, honesty, and love – all in the face of passing time, which can go by almost as quickly in our lives as it does in this film.

And even for Ennis, perhaps there is a brighter future. Perhaps in that final scene his new self-understanding will be enough to empower him to begin searching for what will give him a whole, good, and happy life. Instead of "The End" being a life sentence, perhaps it marks the turning point at which Ennis gives himself another new beginning – as the lights come up.

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Crew

  • Directed by Ang Lee
  • Written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana,
  • Based on a short story by E. Annie Proulx
  • Produced by Diana Ossana & James Schamus
  • Executive Producers: Michael Costigan, Michael Hausman, Larry McMurtry, & William Pohlad
  • Cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto
  • Designed by Judy Becker
  • Art Direction by Laura Ballinger
  • Costumes by Marit Allen
  • Makeup by Manlio Rocchetti & Mary-Lou Green-Benvenuti
  • Sound by Philip Stockton (supervising sound editor)
  • Edited by Geraldine Peroni & Dylan Tichenor
  • Musical Score by Gustavo Santaolalla

Cast

  • Heath Ledger as Ennis Del Mar
  • Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack Twist
  • Anna Faris as LaShawn Malone
  • Anne Hathaway as Lureen Newsome Twist
  • Michelle Williams as Alma Beers Del Mar
  • Randy Quaid as Joe Aguirre
  • Linda Cardellini as Cassie Cartwright
  • Kate Mara as Alma Del Mar Jr
  • Scott Michael Campbell as Monroe
  • Cheyenne Hill as Alma Del Mar Jr. (age 13)
  • Brooklynn Proulx as Jenny Del Mar (age 4)
  • Tom Carey as Jimbo the Rodeo Clown
  • Roberta Maxwell as Jack's Mother
  • Peter McRobbie as John Twist

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10 Outstanding GLBT Film Westerns

Red River
Red River
(1948)

Johnny Guitar
Johnny Guitar (1954)

Whity
Whity
(1971)

Zachariah
Zachariah
(1971)

My Own Private Idaho
My Own Private Idaho
(1991)

Brokeback Mountain
Brokeback Mountain
(2005)

Westerns have been a part of the long, if often hidden, history of GLBT Cinema for over a century. Once seen, it's hard to forget "The Gay Brothers," a wonderful 1895 short film of two cowboys (who may or may not be siblings) unselfconsciously waltzing together. It was directed by William Dickson for Thomas Alva Edison's film production company; it was also an early experiment in film sound. Vito Russo, in his groundbreaking 1981 study The Celluloid Closet, writes of a 1903 short of a transvestite posing in a mirror, made by Edwin S. Porter. (That same year, Porter directed "The Great Train Robbery" – with New Jersey standing in for the old West – which is arguably the template for all later Hollywood Westerns and action movies.) In the century since then, there have been several extraordinary GLBT-themed Westerns, most recently director Ang Lee's universally acclaimed Brokeback Mountain (2005).

Queer Cowboys by Chris PackardThere is an even longer tradition of GLBT Westerns in literature, as well as the lived experience of GLBT people who, in the nineteenth century and later, escaped the social pressure, and potential prison sentences, of the "civilized" East to create their own lives on the frontier. You can learn more in Chris Packard's outstanding study, Queer Cowboys (2005), which draws on literary, non-fiction, and visual sources to explore same-sex life in the Old West.

The ten GLBT Westerns below are presented in chronological order. Some of these films also appear on my list of the 10 Best Film Westerns. I include films in which same-sex orientation is both strong and intimately connected, even if unspoken, to the film as a whole: that's why even great "buddy" films, like George Roy Hill's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) or Sam Peckinpah's stunning The Wild Bunch (1969), do not appear. In limiting this list to the traditional ten titles, I've had to omit some intriguing pictures, ranging from a B-movie "oater" I stumbled upon – The Oklahoma Cyclone (1930), starring the dashing Bob Steele, in which a gay outlaw dies protecting the hero whom he unmistakably loves; to Roert Aldrich's (Kiss Me Deadly, The Dirty Dozen) fascinating 1954 film, Vera Cruz, starring Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster: their sizzling chemistry may possibly be ascribed to their reputed bisexuality, as detailed in William J. Mann's indispensable 2001 history, Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood, 1910–1969; to the Wild West comedy Heller in Pink Tights (1960), about a theatrical trouple trying to stay one step ahead of creditors, outlaws, and Native Americans, from the great, and gay, director George Cukor (The Philadelphia Story, My Fair Lady); to Maggie Greenwald's The Ballad of Little Jo (1993), about a young woman (Suzy Amis) who disguises herself as a man in order to live in a small, male-dominated mining town. Some notable GLBT Westerns I have not yet seen include Samuel Fuller's I Shot Jesse James (1949 – excerpts I've seen make unmistakable the homoerotic connection between Bob Ford, the "I" of the title, and outlaw Jesse James, not least because the titular deed is done while Jesse is tidying up his Martha-Stewartesque home); Budd Boetticher's Comanche Station (1960); and The Wild Rovers (1971) from bisexual director Blake Edwards (Breakfast at Tiffany's, Victor/Victoria). Linked titles below go to my full-length reviews; others I may write about in the future. Despite their diverse approaches to the Western, each of these pictures reveals how GLBT characters and issues can enrich, or even redefine, a genre.

  1. The Outlaw (Howard Hughes – 1943 – US) — Hughes, the legendary aviator, billionaire entrepreneur, and recluse, also directed two films: the World War I adventure/romance Hell's Angels (1930; uncredited co-director James Whale, Bride of Frankenstein) and The Outlaw (filmed 1941, released 1943; uncredited co-director Howard Hawks – see Red River below – whose 1932 Scarface Hughes produced). At the time of its release, The Outlaw was notorious, and hugely successful, for the then-daring presentation of Jane Russell's ripe sexuality. In fact, the film is shockingly contemptuous of her character, a poor Latina named Rio who's insanely in love with the ferally beautiful Billy the Kid (played by non-actor Jack Beutel, who here defines the icy indifference of young-male "attitude"). Rio and Billy's relationship is garden-variety sado/masochistic. Much more complex, and at times astonishing in its hair-raising intensity, is the love/lust of Doc Holliday (Walter Huston, Dodsworth, Treasure of the Sierra Madre) for Billy. The scene in which Doc literally shoots pieces out of Billy's cheeks and ears, with its unmistakable and twisted homoeroticism, makes even the kinkiest Billy/Rio scenes pale by comparison. (Hawks revamped this 'flesh-shooting' scene five years later for his own first Western, Red River, during the climactic fight between Montgomery Clift and John Wayne.) This film, which obviously plays fast and loose with history, also explores the intimate bond between Doc and Sheriff Pat Garrett (Thomas Mitchell, who played Gerald O'Hara in Gone With the Wind), as well as that between Garrett and his historical nemesis, Billy. At times this over-the-top film makes you feel you're watching a traffic accident: Hughes's direction, despite Hawks's help, is all over place (or rather, soundstage), carnage is everywhere... but you just can't look away. As if that's not enough, the film's many emotional climaxes are underscored with the rapturously tormented strains of gay icon Pyotr Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony. There is enormous, and profoundly strange, power in this film, whose depiction of same-sex passion is as intense as its opposite-sex equivalent. How the censors missed the former, while getting into a hissy fit over the latter, is one of mysteries of the history of the puritanical Motion Picture Production Code.

  2. Red River (Howard Hawks – 1948 – US) — By any standard, one of the two or three greatest Westerns ever made, and one of Hawks's masterpieces (along with the comedies Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday, and the thrillers Scarface and The Big Sleep). Red River is much more than the tale of a monumental cattle drive along the Chisholm Trail. Not only does Hawks capture the rugged poetry of the West as well as the great John Ford (Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine), he reveals the complex and sometimes turbulent sexual undercurrents behind the cowboys' laconic facades. The passion between John Ireland and Montgomery Clift, who was gay, is riveting (not least in their shooting contest cum courtship scene), as is the bond between Clift and John Wayne, who plays his adopted father, a tyrannical cattle baron. (Red River is literally The Last Picture Show – the final film shown in the broken-down movie theatre in Peter Bogdanovich's superb 1971 film of that title; it's based on the novel by Larry McMurtry, who also co-wrote the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain: ah, connections.) I look forward to writing in depth about Red River in the future; I recommend it as highly as any film on this list.

  3. Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray – 1954 – US) — One of the greatest, and strangest, films from director Nicholas Ray (In a Lonely Place, Rebel Without a Cause). Saloonkeeper Joan Crawford is locked in a struggle with self-righteous gunslinger Mercedes McCambridge, who was a lesbian, for control of a town. So brilliantly over the top visually and dramatically, it raises camp to the level of art. One of the most original, and unforgettable, Westerns ever made; it also had a profound impact on the French New Wave, especially Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless, Pierrot le Fou), with their penchant for revisionist genre films. I look forward to writing about Johnny Guitar when the DVD is released.

  4. Lonesome Cowboys (Paul Morrissey – 1967 – US) — Andy Warhol produced this (dare I say) trailblazingly homoerotic, soft-core tale of cowpokes cavorting amongst the cacti and succulents. It features such Factory stalwarts as Viva and Taylor Mead. Paul Morrissey actually directed most of the pictures whose titles begin Andy Warhol's..., including Flesh (1968), Heat (1972), Frankenstein (1973), and Dracula (1974).

  5. A Bullet for the General (aka Quien sabe?) (Damiano Damiani – 1967 – Italy) — A handsome blond gringo bandit, who is actually a spy, infiltrates a notorious band of Mexican guerillas by (in effect) seducing their leader. This is one of the better 1960's "spaghetti Westerns," popular films set in the American West but made by Italian filmmakers with international casts, and often shot in Spain (like Sergio Leone's 1967 classic, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, starring Clint Eastwood, who was discovered working as a gas station attendant by gay director Arthur Lubin, the 1943 Phantom of the Opera). The basic plot, which is skillfully realized both dramatically and visually, bears a definite resemblance to two classic films noir. William Keighley's The Street With No Name (1948) and its remake, set in postwar Japan, Sam Fuller's House of Bamboo (1955) both show how a straight undercover government agent wins the favor of a gay crime kingpin in order to bring him down: of course, the same-sex theme is almost as downplayed, but unmistakable, in those pictures as in Damiano's. A Bullet for the General was a favorite film of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's (see Whity below), who even cast the "blond gringo," American actor Lou Castel, to play his alter ego in Beware of a Holy Whore (the tongue-in-cheek title refers to cinema). That film – which Fassbinder considered his finest work and which is one of the two or three best, and funniest, pictures ever made about filmmaking – is a brilliantly perceptive satire on the travails of shooting Whity.

  6. Whity (Rainer Werner Fassbinder – 1971 – Germany) — I've waggishly dubbed this a "sauerkraut," as opposed to "spaghetti," Western. Not only is it the most self-consciously bizarre Western ever made, it also provides the most radical critique of the genre's assumptions. It is as much about racism, sexism and same-sex desire as the Western's traditional themes, which are also conspicuously present; it also weirdly conjures up the horror film, with the corrupt wealthy family, at the film's center, wearing ghastly make-up right out of a vampire, or zombie, movie. It's mesmerizing to watch, and (at least for some) endlessly fascinating to ponder. For all of its in-your-face originality, Whity has a definite lineage: the perversities of The Outlaw were refined into the eye- and gun-popping artistry of Johnny Guitar, which inspired Godard, who in turn was a cinematically avant-garde father-figure to Fassbinder. For all of its Hollywood – and Marxist – underpinnings, this film seems to have come directly from the filmmaker's id... on acid. Although I haven't met any, I'm sure plenty of people will loathe this film: you have been warned... and encouraged to experience it.

  7. Zachariah (George Englund – 1971 – US) — A bizarre, but strangely compelling, rock musical / Western, masterminded by the comedy troupe The Firesign Theatre. It may have begun as a send-up of Westerns, as well as Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha (which it borrows from wholesale), but by the final sequence this tale of two gunslingers in love has, perhaps in spite of itself, achieved much more. With Whity (see directly above) and this film, 1971 is the high water mark of surreal Westerns.

  8. Desert Hearts (Donna Deitch – 1985 – US) — This beautifully-made and deeply moving film is a landmark in its honest and affirmative portrayal of same-sex love. Based on Jane Rule's groundbreaking 1964 novel, Desert of the Heart, it is about a repressed English professor (Helen Shaver) who stays at a Nevada dude ranch while her divorce is processed. Little by little, she falls in love with freewheeling, and sexually open, sculptor and casino worker (Patricia Charbonneau), who introduces her to the stark beauty of the desert... and to love.

  9. My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant – 1991 – US) — This extraordinary film, one of the best of its decade and arguably the finest work to date of writer/director Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy, Good Will Hunting), is many things, from an incisive updating of Shakespeare's Henry IV to a gritty but compassionate depiction of contemporary teenage hustlers. It is also unmistakably a Western in its themes and imagery, although Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix ride motorcycles instead of broncos while they cross the vast Western frontier. The pivotal campfire scene, with Phoenix laconically bearing his heart to Reeves while they are alone on the prairie, shows how inspired writing, direction, and performance can transform a virtual cliche of the Western into an revelatory experience. Here is my full review of My Own Private Idaho.

  10. Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee – 2005 – US) — A majestic, heartrending film from director Ang Lee (The Wedding Banquet, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), about the love which sustains two Wyoming cowboys, even as they marry and raise families through the 1960s and '70s. Above is my review of Brokeback Mountain.

Reviewed December 18, 2005

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