Brokeback Mountain: A Gay Poet's View

brokemtn_thumb.jpg "Brokeback Mountain" Directed by Ang Lee With Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Randy Quaid, Anne Hathaway, and Michele Williams Written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana from a story by Annie Proulx

Review by Tom Savage

As virtually every other review has said that I've seen and many I haven't seen, Brokeback Mountain is a wonderful movie. Called a "gay cowboy movie" in most promotional material and some reviews, I'm not sure it really is that, however. Although it depicts a long term sexual relationship between two men, both deny being gay and set out to prove it by having heterosexual relationships as well. Are they bisexuals or are the families just a cover to protect themselves in the so-called American heartlands in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, the period during which this movie is set? This film beautifully demonstrates the inadequacy of categories or gender stereotypes when applied to characters who seem more real than most gays depicted on the screen heretofore. They seem to be real cowboys engaged in the mundane tasks like shepherding, rodeo competitions, etc. In short, this is cowboys without Indians. What is more, they seem like real people engaged in identity conflicts and crises, rather than symbols or stand ins for ideas being promoted by a director or a writer. Superficially, one is reminded of an old film with Dustin Hoffman and John Voigt called Midnight Cowboy released over twenty or thirty years ago. Hailed as a great step forward at the time and embraced enthusiastically both by gay and straight audiences, it now seems (by memory, at least, since I haven't seen the film in at least fifteen years) to be hopelessly out of date although the acting in it was very good. The cowboy in that film played by John Voigt, was actually a street hustler who made his living by picking up or being picked up by usually middle aged or older gay men. He used the money so gained to help support the other character, famously named Ratso Ritso, played by Dustin Hoffman. Only toward the end of the film, if I remember correctly, is there an acknowledgement that theirs is more than a relationship of economic necessity. For its day, Midnight Cowboy was a breakthrough because life between gay or bisexual men had never been portrayed in a Hollywood movie before.

The situation in Brokeback Mountain is more complex, more interesting, and more believable. Although it is unclear whether Jack Twist (Gylenhaal) has ever had experience of homosexual sex before his idyll on the mountain with Ennis (Heath Ledger), it's clear that for Ennis (Heath Ledger), this is a new and troubling experience. He expects to get married once his summer herding sheep is over. In fact, it seems almost accidental that two young, handsome men left alone with a herd of sheep should find themselves sharing sleeping accommodations and having sex. The naturalistic direction and editing contributes to the feeling of normalcy to the ecstasy the two men stumble upon when left alone for the first time as near strangers. These are clearly not the John Wayne or Gary Cooper cowboys of old, although Ledger's character does have some resemblance to the persona Cooper often found himself embodying when young -- the natural man of few words and endowed with a sort of shyness. But John Wayne must be spinning in his grave over this movie. Let him roll and roll over.

Their first sex scene is passionate. Ennis, who has never had the opportunity to sin before, according to a line of his dialogue, gives it to J.T. This is the first scene of our and out gay male sodomy I can remember in a major Hollywood film. It's almost as if, for a few moments, the content of gay pornographic movies had somehow graduated into a film with a plot which after all means something and develops. Still, at the end of their first sexual encounter, one says: "I ain't queer." The other replies,"me, neither". They seem to be discovering gay sex together with remarkable ease. Nonetheless, it seems believable. When their job ends prematurely, they separate. Ennis gets married to the woman he intended to wed before he set out for Brokeback Mountain and produces three children in fairly short order. Jack Twist meets the daughter of a rich farm equipment merchant at a rodeo where both ride and they, too, get married. After a postcard is exchanged between Ennis and J.T., they meet again and begin a long series of trips together, two or three times a year. They kiss passionately upon their first re-encounter. Ennis's wife Alma, marvelously played by Michelle Williams, sees them kiss but keeps this information to herself, at least for awhile, while Ennis and J.T. go to a motel and to bed again. Under the pretext of fishing trips, they meet again and again. In 1975, Alma divorces Ennis. J.T. wants a mutually exclusive relationship with Ennis. Ennis says no. Finally, J.T. goes to Mexico to get men. Ennis keeps trying with women. J.T. also keeps trying with women. Their reunions continue, however. Although Jack Twist is the most "gay" character in the movie, this is Heath Ledger's picture because of the depth and complexity he brings to his remarkable character. Toward the end of the film, J.T. is killed by a small group of men. Did his wife have him killed? Upon seeing Brokeback Mountain a second time, it was hard to tell. The friend with whom I saw it the first time thought she was pulling the strings of Jack's murder from behind the scenes but there may not be enough visually in the film to bear out this suspicion. After the death is discovered by Ennis, he visits J.T.'s parents in order, he hopes, to bring Jack's ashes back to Brokeback Mountain where the dead man wanted them scattered. But the parents refuse to this, leaving Ennis with an old shirt of Jack's as his only memento of their "friendship."

This is a remarkable film for many reasons. Along with the actors involved, the director and writers deserve as much credit for the fact that this film works as well as it does and as smoothly as it does. Ang Lee, the director, has made many interesting films over the past fifteen years or so including \work{Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon} (2001), \work{The Ice Storm} (1997), \work{Sense and Sensibility} (1995), \work{Eat Drink, Man Woman} (1994), \work{The Wedding Banquet} (1993) and what was apparently his firm film, the beautiful and intimate portrayal of an old man who practices Chinese exercises called tai chi and chi gong called \work{Pushing Hands} (1992). It is perhaps Lee's gift for portraying intimacy between people in films such as his early films in Chinese which allowed him to direct \work{Brokeback Mountain} so well.