Brokeback Mountain: Crossing the Last Frontier
(reviewed by Vicky Luzón)
Ang Lee has said that he considers Brokeback Mountain to be just a love story, not a western. I couldnt agree more. Even though it will probably be very difficult to look at the by now queered Wyoming landscape in quite the same way any longer, his latest film owes more to the melodramatic tradition than the western. In fact, it is significant that the IMDB places the film within the categories of drama and love, not western. Like classical melodrama the film portrays a doomed love story between two men who happen to be cowboys. However, they could have been clerks and the result would most likely have been the same. Yet, the fact that the men are cowboys adds to the intensity of this melodrama. In most examples of the genre, the protagonists pursuits of happiness are thwarted due to powerful social pressures to conform to what is correct, proper and normal. It is the social environment that crushes their aspirations, with different but often heartbreaking consequences. For two gay cowboys in Wyoming in the 1960s the pressures must have been (and without doubt still are) unbearable indeed.
Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist meet and fall in love during the summer they share tending to sheep on Brokeback Mountain. Unlike other commentators, I do not believe they discover their sexuality precisely during the time they spend together but they probably come to terms with it, at least temporarily. Enniss taciturn but often violent behaviour can only be attributed to a desperate need to hide what he harbours inside. Ever since a traumatic moment in his childhood, he has learnt to hate gays, and thus himself. Jack is the only person that can break down Enniss guard, gently forcing Enniss real feelings to come to the surface, which is why Ennis both loves and hates him. It is his helplessness that makes him fight Jack in desperation at several points throughout the film.
Indeed, Ennis has internalised his male role so deeply that he finds it very hard to accept himself and, unlike Jack, can never envision a life together. It is his deep desire to conform to his proper role, to do what a mans gotta do (especially if you work on a ranch or are a rodeo rider) that makes everybodys life anything but happy: his own, his wifes Alma, Jacks and Jacks wifes Lureen. In women-centred melodramas it is normally the womans desire to escape her proper role that creates the melodramatic tension. Yet, in Brokeback Mountain, it is Enniss desire to conform to his proper role as father and husband that creates it. Arguably, he is probably more realistic than Jack, as the films tragic ending seems to confirm. However one does wonder if that forbidden love was not worth living, even if shortly, despite the obvious risks. Certainly, Heath Ledgers performance helps flesh out the desperation that separates Jack and Ennis permanently and I believe it can be equated to James Deans best work. Not surprisingly, Hedger won himself a Golden Globe nomination for best actor and another one from the Screen Actors Guild, in addition to many others. He will definitely be a front runner in the Oscar race.
To me, Ang Lees excellent film is truly groundbreaking in his treatment of homosexual love. Even though it has been banned in some places, notably in the U.S., it has truly managed to reach the mainstream audience. Despite its squalid 5-screen limited-release opening in the U.S. at the beginning of December (an astonishingly clear sign of todays still prevailing homophobia in the U.S.), as compared to 125 screens in the U.K., it is still no. 5 in the U.S. film charts. In addition, as I am writing this, the film is no. 1 in Spain, where it opened over a week ago, and no. 3 in the UK, where it opened about a month ago. One of the things the film does best is the way in which it effortlessly manages to subvert the notion of compulsory heterosexuality. It is gay love that the film portrays as more real and closer to nature than anything else, a truly romantic notion (in both its literal and artistic sense) underlined by the films tagline: love is a force of nature, a cliché that within this context somehow ceases to be one. It is duty in a loveless marriage and compulsory heterosexuality that are portrayed as artificial and detrimental. The film is thus groundbreaking in suggesting that the tough, hard traits of traditional manhood can be coupled with homosexual desire. Other mainstream Hollywood products have portrayed gay characters to positive effects but none really treated gay sexuality as explicitly and naturally as this one. The film should be praised on these grounds indeed.
However, it should also be said that the film has its downsides: not sufficient attention is given to Alma del Mars misery, perhaps, or to Enniss deeply male-chauvinistic attitude towards her role in the family or even towards Jacks faltering faithfulness. In addition, Ennis and Almas younger daughter suddenly disappears from the picture. Yet, the special relationship Ennis has with Alma Jr. compensates for this lack in a way. Fatherhood provides Ennis with the purpose that his life lacks as this is the only area in which he seems to be in control and sure of himself. His love for his daughters becomes particularly apparent in the scene when, after the divorce, he decides to sacrifice an exultant Jack for a weekend with them, which precipitates Jacks search for comfort elsewhere.
Everything in the picture has a dramatic force that is difficult to put into words, but it is perhaps during its final section that the film reaches its greatest dramatic heights. The rage in Lureens face during her telephone conversation with Ennis is difficult to forget, as is the irony of imagining the two characters closer than ever through the flashback they share. Even though this flashback could be interpreted as a projection of Enniss fears and imagination, it is the look on Lureens face that makes it evident that that is what really happened. Finally, it is the final sequence at Jacks parents house that perhaps provides the most memorable and heartbreaking moments in the picture. On the one hand, there is the cruel realisation that maybe there Jacks dream could have become true. On the other, the coldness and emptiness of Jacks room, which has remained untouched for 20 years, recalls the void and tragedy in Enniss and Jacks lives and reminds us that it is only the forward march of social evolution that can break the last frontier of compulsory heterosexuality.