A reviewer writing this late aboutBrokeback Mountain has to face the backlash that all critically acclaimed movies suffer. After reaching critical mass, the reputation of all movies goes only in one direction: down.
Everything I say here about Brokeback has probably been said before. But I liked it quite a bit and so I am going to write about it anyway.
‘Brokeback’, now a popular euphemism for being a homosexual, was upon its release tagged as a gay western, probably the world’s first one to gain a wide release. It is pointless to get into a discussion about whether it’s indeed the first gay movie. But like Anthony Lane writing for The New Yorker says it, the movie isn’t particularly a western or a gay movie.
I think it’s about love, only between men. That feels a bit queasy to write, one reason why you have to see the movie. So that you no longer feel so queasy when men kiss on the screen.
(Just like many movies have undergone a feminist re-reading, others have been subjected to a gay reading. There are those who feel that Judah Ben-Hur, played by Charlton Heston, and Messala, played by Stephen Boyd, shared a gay relationship in the 1959 classic Ben-Hur. In fact, it is said that Heston, the macho man who later became the voice of the gun-toting American, wasn’t told of the gay relationship as he would have declined the role.)
One reason Brokeback works so well when set in the Wyoming and Texas of 1963 is because it manages to easily hint at the relationship that cowboys in their jeans and leather belts and boots would have shared, away as they were from their women and children. Another advantage is the use of the broken, rustic tongue of the west.
The inarticulate, mumbling and submissive Ennis Del Mar (Health Ledger) and the rodeo cowboy Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) meet as farmhands as they graze sheep on the idyllic Brokeback Mountain. Without knowing what they are getting into, they begin a relationship that will dominate their entire lives. Both aren’t gay, probably just lonely. Jack is quick to realize what has happened between the two, but Ennis is shrewder. He knows that their love has to always remain secret and forbidden. Both, however, seem not to know what they have started.
Ennis: This is a one-shot thing we got goin' on here.
Jack: It's nobody's business but ours.
Ennis: You know I ain’t queer.
Jack: Me neither.
But it isn’t a one-shot thing, and both are queer as hell. And, it is not just their business. It is society business and society has a way of dealing with such abnormalities. But that isn’t the point.
The two part ways and start families, but neither one is happy. After four years, Jack – always the aggressive one – visits Ennis. The two men embrace and as Ennis’s wife Alma watches them in shock through a window, they roughly kiss each other, years of frustration visible on both faces.
Unhappy with their wives and unable to declare their relationship in the open, the two “friends” are caught in “one unsatisfactory bitch of a situation”. They renew the uneasy but intense relationship that began in Brokeback. Through this second chapter, Ang Lee (in the picture on the sets of Brokeback) conveys the feeling that Ennis has of always being watched. For the consequences are severe. If caught, both will be killed in a gruesome fashion that will serve as a warning for the rest of them. Jack is persuaded that they can never live together. “If you can’t fix it, you gotta stand it,” Ennis tells him.
After years when Ennis is finally divorced, Jack is hopeful. Now at last, they can begin a new life. But Ennis isn’t sure and finally is forced to turn Jack down. And we aren’t sure why either. This sort of a relationship is not just possible. Period.
“I wish I knew how to quit you,” Jack says in exasperation.
Jack is killed in an “accident” and when Ennis hears the news from Jack’s wife, images of people kicking him to death flash through his mind. Jack wanted his ashes scattered over Brokeback Mountain, and so Ennis pays a visit to his folks.
There at his parents’ house, Jack has the shirt, wrapped inside his own denim, which Ennis missed in Brokeback. Ennis brings it down delicately like a trophy and wraps it and leaves. And in any case, he doesn’t get Jack’s dad’s permission to scatter the ashes.
Their secret like the shirt will always remain under wraps. It would never come out in the open, like the ashes that are never scattered on Brokeback Mountain.