December 27, 2005

Brokeback Mountain

Directed by Ang Lee Starring Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Williams

Reviewed by Martin Tsai


This synopsis gives away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

In the summer of 1963, Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist find employment respectively as camp tender and sheepherder on Brokeback Mountain north of Signal, Wyoming. Jack gripes about the commute between the campsite and the herd miles away, and having to sleep out in the cold in order to prevent coyote attacks. After trading jobs with each other, taciturn Ennis and gregarious Jack also start swapping life stories. One night Ennis gets too drunk to head back to the herd, and a sexual affair between them begins.

They part ways at summer’s end and reunite four years later. Ennis has tied the knot with sweetheart Alma and fathered two daughters. Jack has moved to Texas, married a wealthy businessman’s daughter, and had a son. When the two men finally meet again, Alma inadvertently catches them passionately kissing but keeps it to herself. After Ennis rejects Jack’s idea of them running a ranch together, they begin trysting several times a year.

Ennis grows increasingly distant from his family, and Alma ultimately divorces him. Responsibilities of family and work also keep him away from Jack. When his postcard to Jack unexpectedly returns with “deceased” stamped on it, Ennis speaks to Jack’s wife Lureen for the first time. She tells him that Jack at age 39 died in an accident, although Ennis imagines that homophobes murdered him. Hoping to carry out Jack’s wish of having his ashes scattered on Brokeback, Ennis visits his friend’s parents. There, he learns that Jack had a relationship with another man.


Homosexuality has been an implicit theme in many westerns, such as Edward Dmytryk’s Warlock (1959) and Blake Edwards’s Wild Rovers (1971). As critic J. Hoberman pointed out, the genre is a particularly “homosocial” one that customarily excludes women. This boys-club mentality and the oft-resulting queer subtext are also prevalent in buddy-cop flicks, war films and movies about organized crime. Women’s interference spoils the loyalty and bond among men.

Brokeback Mountain isn’t the first “gay western” as many critics dubbed it, if it’s even a western at all. It doesn’t have genre staples such as a mysterious stranger riding into town, six-gun banditry or a corrupt sheriff. The film is only groundbreaking as the first mainstream feature to depict cowboys – icons of masculinity, solitude and frontier Americana – engaging in gay sex.

Both Annie Proulx’s 1997 original short story and the faithful screenplay by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana pointedly broach homosexuality and sexism in the western. This strategy of perverting a genre by making the latent conventions more explicit previously garnered critical acclaim for another Focus Features release: With Far From Heaven (2002), Todd Haynes tackled homosexuality and interracial relationship subtexts in the 1950s Douglas Sirk melodramas.

Highlighting the western’s inherent sexism, the women of Brokeback serve only as accessories. Doomed gay lovers Ennis and Jack each take a wife to conform to societal norms and then neglect them to pursue an illicit affair with each other. But the film is sympathetic only toward the plight of its protagonists, and it largely glosses over the women’s sufferings. Despite its embrace of homosexuality, the film’s surrender to sexism reveals a troublingly regressive social agenda: Men without their women can do just fine on their own.

McMurtry and Ossana aren’t any more generous to the female characters than are their husbands. Both wives are caricatures. Ennis’s better half Alma personifies “long suffering” and turns a blind eye to the affair. Jack’s aloof spouse Lureen is only concerned with the family business. A montage of the men’s parallel lives during their time apart cruelly juxtaposes Jack’s bull riding with Ennis sexually penetrating Alma’s bum. Ennis’s two daughters serve to exacerbate his domestic troubles as infants, but once grown up they inexplicably morph into a composite character with the younger one vanishing entirely. The screenwriters have treated the women as afterthoughts.

Despite his foreign and American indie credentials, the film’s director Ang Lee is no auteur. The only discernable common thread that runs through his filmography is a tendency to exploit exotic subject matter and make it palatable to the mainstream. His Asian features (Eat Drink Man Woman, 1994; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000) mostly aimed for a Western audience, just as his gay-themed films (The Wedding Banquet, 1993; Brokeback) primarily targeted heterosexual viewers.

Focus Features is marketing the film as a timeless love story, with the poster evoking that of Titanic. But Brokeback never explains how Ennis and Jack’s animalistic lust evolves into a love that would first endure four years’ separation and then prompt them to risk their respective family lives.

Lee employs a spatial symbolism that ultimately proves to be reductive. Exteriors here represent the liberation of human emotions, while interiors denote repression and domestic burdens. Ennis and Jack can give in to their hearts and be themselves when surrounded by the digitally-enhanced sweeping sky and austere slopes, because that’s where men get to be men. Their lives are unfulfilled outside their natural element. Domesticated men – such as Jack’s condescending father-in-law and Alma’s electric-carver-using new beau – lack integrity in contrast. The motif finally becomes laughable with the lovers’ mementoes ending up literally inside the closet.

© Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.