The “gay cowboy movie” has compelled such unanimity of opinion--glowing kudos for its acting performances, its visual sensibility, its sensitivity--that the uniformity of questions about its identity is scarcely surprising. Brokeback Mountain is a clear work in many ways--it sketches out elegant conflicts and storylines with a skill that is as poetic as it is precise, and repeating images, so often abused as emotional shortcuts in films, gain symbolic heft here. So not surprisingly, the discourse around the film seems to be running in similarly neat channels, including the question: Is Brokeback Mountain a gay film?
An interesting question, and for all its political necessity, a somewhat irksome one--it smacks of an essentialism ill-suited to the gender-bending that queerness can inspire. But every minority group is concerned with questions of identity, and the ways in which ever-evolving answers fuel both political solidarity and individual understanding. So how to answer this question--and why are so many people asking it?
The marvelously inarticulate, ferociously feeling characters at the heart of Brokeback Mountain don't provide many answers--as Slate author Dave Leavitt noted, the film “is less the story of a love that dares not speak its name than of one that doesn't know how to speak its name . . .” Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) meet in 1961 in Wyoming, outside a junked-up trailer that serves as an office – the dust that swirls around them has more to say than the shuffling ranch hands do. They take up jobs herding sheep in a pristine national park, and over whiskey, cans of beans and drunken song, develop a friendship that, one cold night, becomes abruptly something more.
With his shots of mountain vistas, sheep running like wooly rivers over the hills, aching sunsets, director Ang Lee wants to paint a wild, Rousseau-inflected idyll--an endeavor that is only partially successful, given that an idyll is often an experiential rapture that defies representation. Jack and Ennis's love is a “force of nature,” the movie's tagline tells its viewers--it's untamable, unstoppable, of the elements, and therefore somehow beyond expression.
Ennis embodies that sort of iconic, manful reticence--he's a Marlboro man whose volatile feelings are scarcely contained by his stoicism. Ledger gives an unnerving and wholly heartbreaking performance, his Hollywood good looks suddenly drawn in, shoulders hunched, hooded eyes gazing over the hills. Ennis has a rich vocabulary of grunts and little else. When he does speak, his words reveal a tormented tenderness, in sharp contrast to the garrulous, breezy charm of Gyllenhaal's Jack Twist. Jack is the more psychologically accessible of the two, and he's more comfortable with the possibilities of their love. But Ennis is the scarred heart of the film--his fear turns him into a character for whom fighting and fucking often become intertwined, and whose depth of feeling can be measured in his inability to express it.
Jack and Ennis part ways after the summer, stagger into conventionality. Jack marries a Lureen, minx of a rodeo queen (Anne Hathaway) who is also a rich daddy's girl; Ennis weds Alma (Michelle Williams), whose ardent eyes soon shade into wariness. If Brokeback Mountain were a simple-minded film, the wives might become harridans tethering their husbands to a dried-out domesticity, and away from the rarefied heights of mountain-man love. But Lee, who also directed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Sense and Sensibility, has always been attuned to the ways in which women are confined by societal pressures--watch how lusty Lureen, winking from the saddle, becomes a brittle businesswoman, hunched under hairdos that grow increasingly elaborate and stiff as the years wear on. Alma's warmth gives way to the terrible burden of suspicion--the men's thwarted love torments everyone around the star-crossed pair, and this is where the film's slow burn begins to char the soul.
The is-this-film-gay question, then, arises out of the film's structure itself--Brokeback is preoccupied with Life, in the yawping Whitman-esque dimensions, and life, in its complexities and human attachments. It is utterly unconcerned with lifestyle, which is where Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Will & Grace, Queer As Folk, for better and worse, seem to situate gayness for mass consumption. It's hard to buy, commodify or get nice product placements in around Brokeback's gayness; save for its title, you can't make insouciant witty barbs about it; there is no drag-queen drama or some comical character to swish around, so stereotypically gay he might as well burst into flames the minute he minces into the scene. The film is gay and not “gay”--it is existentially gay, in its depiction of love between men, if not resonant with how gayness is usually depicted or with queerness as an evolving cultural identity. In the end, there is only a compassionately observed human drama, the universal theme of doomed love, condemned by the particularities of time and place, homophobia and the fears--of societal reprisal and, tragically, of fulfilled hopes--of at least one of its lovers.
Lee is the avatar of tastefulness--he skirts around the potential camp factor of his gay-cowboy movie by foregrounding the homoeroticism already present in guy-genre flicks, in which love between men is revealed in their willingness to punch each other in the face, and die for one another. For Jack and Ennis, it's a figurative death, drawn out over their few “fishing-trip” reunions each year as they try to recreate the passion of their first meeting. Their souls and faces grow leathery and chapped, they cling to a makeshift domesticity of tents and campfires. When they first meet, Lee shoots them next to a battered truck with one flat tire--an element that will resurface years later, and which also encapsulates their relationship, a lover's limbo where passion becomes keepsakes in a closet, and the endless horizons of God's country, constricted by character and cruel circumstance, nothing but a paradise lost.
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.