Aside from a ton of the classics included in this month of westerns, I was fairly grounded about my wanting to include Brokeback Mountain amongst the list, primarily because I would strongly defend is placement within the genre, considering the setting and characters of the film, although it is a blatant revision of the tradition in a fresh and much needed manner. I also wanted to justify its inclusion on the list because it had been a shame gap in my viewing, despite being told that it was a phenomenal work, although that should have been of little surprise considering that it is from the masterful Ang Lee whose varied film career reflect and individual who deeply concerns himself with challenging his own limitations, while also considering deeply personal experiences in the process. Like his earlier works, The Ice Storm in particular, Brokeback Mountain manages to be a modest production with a grand social statement, one that is as much an indictment of American traditionalism in the face of fear mongering as it is a consideration on the nature of love, desire and intimate friendship. I will admit that given its release date as being prior to my eventual appreciation for cinema on a large scale, I had allowed the reputation of the film to proceed itself and had foolishly believed that it would simply be a highly exploitative consideration of the experiences of two gay ranch hands. Of course, I realized my misguided preconceived notions were wrong rather quickly, as Lee manages to make a highly romantic, sensual and passionate film that causes even the most calloused of viewer to root for the struggles of the main characters. Furthermore, Lee does not shy away from the very real tragedies that emerge when an unaccepted love narrative emerges, showing the physical and emotional toll on those both directly and tangentially involved in something that is pure and unbridled, doing so to near Shakespearean proportions. Each minimalist guitar strum pushes the narrative closer and closer to breaking of the dam of stoicism, eventually releasing into a deluge of emotions in what easily has to be one of cinema's most heart wrenching sequences of the past ten years. For people who assume that Brokeback mountain is a irrelevant Oscar bait picture, I strongly urge you to revisit it and all it has to offer, I am sure you will come to realize that there is a lot going on in the magnificent work.
Brokeback Mountain begins during the summer of 1963 when two struggling ranch hands agree to take work from Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid) herding sheep in Wyoming. The men Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhal) come from broken homes, Ennis having little recollection of his parents after their death at a young age, while Jack has a tenuous relationship at best, something that allows them to bond, despite both loathing the work involved with ranching. During a night of drunkenness the two engage in intercourse, an act that is cause for hesitation, mainly for Ennis who has a wife and children at home to care for, although he admits to possessing strong feelings for Jack. Upon the end of their trip Ennis returns to his wife then fiancé Alma (Michelle Williams) and gets married, while Jack settles down with a local beauty and cowgirl named Lureen (Anne Hathaway). After a handful of years pass, Ennis receives a postcard from Jack asking to visit with him and perhaps go on a fishing trip, to which he responds with elation and the two instantly rekindle their relationship, which is found out by Alma who accidentally catches them kissing. Life proves to become difficult for both men, when Alma and Ennis eventually get divorced, while Jack struggles to assert his authority to his wealthy father-in-law, while facing the realization that he cannot make it as a rodeo star. The two continue their meetings, until Ennis begins a relationship with Cassie (Linda Cardenelli), while Jack presumably begins another relationship with the husband of one of Lureen's friends. During yet another trip, Ennis attempts to change the date of their next meeting, which results in a heated debate and hateful words being spouted towards one another and they both leave on bad terms. More time passes and Ennis attempts to write to Jack only to receive a return card informing him that he is deceased. This discovery causes Ennis to contact Lureen who says that he died in a freak side of the road repair accident, although Ennis knows that it was a result of a violent hate crime. In an attempt to obtain his ashes, Ennis visits Jack's parents, taking with him some of Jack's clothing, a possession he caries with him and clearly uses as a point of influence in his decisions, particulalry in the closing moments of the film when he approves of his daughters impending marriage contingent on her assuring him that he is doing so out of love.
Brokeback Mountain, like many of the films discussed this month is not entirely a western in the traditional sense, nor does it ever offer itself as something that would be definitively genre. However, Lee, pulling from the short by Diana Ossana, realizes the power and sway of the western mythology, particularly for masculinity within the midwest. The film is set in the sixties, therefore, men of the era would have grown up with the rough and tumble images of Robert Mitchum and John Wayne and been rather familiar with the work of Howard Hawks, and just in case viewers would be uncertain of this, Lee includes scenes of the characters at drive-in movie theaters enjoying films and aware of a cultural landscape outside their respective towns. The masculinity is something both Ennis and Jack manage to maintain, especially since they have chosen to raise families in a conservative word, while Ennis is particularly skilled at asserting his own male prowess, as is obvious in the fireworks scene, Jack is at constant odds with his own feelings of inferiority, seeking fulfillment through rodeos only to realize that he can assert himself when he is being bullied, even if indirectly, as is the case when his father-in-law has a spout during Thanksgiving concerning a football game on television. The masculinity in this film is performed and to varying degrees so to is femininity performed, particularly with Alma who attempts to feign ignorance to Ennis's fishing trips and their true meaning in order to maintain a structured household. What is not performed however is feelings of love and passion, while it seems initially as though Jack and Ennis will have a fleeting, purely physical relationship, as their feeling grow over time it is evidence that love is far greater than any need for sexual gratification, particularly when it is revealed that Ennis finds Jack's involvement with other men to be infidelity. Were it to purely be physical he would have, undoubtedly, accepted it as par for the course. Lee also realizes the very fragile nature of sexuality in an America going into the Cold War and suggest that many partnerships between a heterosexual couple could have easily been out of necessity and mutual friendship, Alma even offers at one point to return to a marriage with Ennis as long as he will admit to his sexual identity. Unfortunately, even when the notion of queerness is indirectly expressed it is faced with mocking and fear, resulting in the death of Jack. The death and murder have no rational explanation, aside from an act of hatred, much like the challenging, yet powerful scenes in Boys Don't Cry. Brokeback Mountain wants viewers to not only accept the natural and organic love between same sex partners, but to also reflect on what cultural venues have led to the demonizing and emasculation of those who do not engage in heteronormative behavior.
Key Scene: While it may be obvious the scene when Ennis visits Jack's room is easily the most heart breaking moment of the entire film and will have even the most dismissive of viewer reconsidering the depth of true love.
This is an important film in many ways and will only prove relevant in decades to come, I strongly urge you to grab a copy and watch it immediately.