Brokeback Mountain (2005)

A number of writers have tried to downplay the “gay cowboy” part of the “gay cowboy love story” description of Brokeback Mountain. They would rather emphasize the “love story”, not the “gay cowboys”.

I’m not sure I entirely buy that.

Brokeback Mountain is certainly a story of starcrossed romance, of deep love kept apart by circumstance.

Starcrossed love stories tend to be about class — the lowly Heathcliff and the middle-class Catherine in Wuthering Heights, the betrothed Newland Archer and the married Countess Ellen Olenska in Age of Innocence, the headstrong Helen Schlagel and the earnest Leonard Bast in Howards End. In these classic tales, financial ruination and diminished social standing were the most at stake.

I can’t think of any recent story that dealt with starcrossed romance between racial lines — I never watched Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever to make an authoritative comparrison — but it’s the only the other parallel that matches the magnitude of risk with a “gay cowboy love story”.

Before there was Stonewall, the love that dare not express its name resulted in death if it did.

Ennis DelMar (Heath Ledger) knows this fact and opts for repressing that expression of love for Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal). Despite Jack’s attempts to bring them together, Ennis stays true to his practicality, even as it forces both men to their own slow self-destructions.

Jack, attempting to fill the void left by the distance between Ennis and him, seeks more stolen moments with other men. Ennis, unable to fake what he feels for Jack with another woman, remains poor and alone.

The two men love each other, and it’s their separation which leaves them unhappy. But to be together poses an equal, if not greater risk, of harm by a scornful society.

Brokeback Mountain is certainly a “love story”, but don’t discount the “gay cowboy” descriptor — it’s not just financial ruin at stake, but actual life.

The film itself is beautifully shot, and there are a lot of nice details to mark the passage of time. Jack’s wife Lureen (Anne Hathaway) transforms herself from a brown-haired horserider to a glitzed-up bottle blonde over the course of two decades. During a Thanksgiving dinner, Jack and his father-in-law battle over a television set that could have come straight out of my parents’ living room in the ’70s.

Is the story a tearjerker? Yes it is. Your Kleenex usage may vary, but I didn’t seem to dry my eyes as much as I was led to believe I would. I did, however, hear a lot of sniffling during some of the quieter moments of the film.

Brokeback Mountain is a painful story to watch unfold. The time and place of the film doesn’t lend itself to a Hollywood ending, but the anguish the characters go through sometimes makes you wish one would take place.

It doesn’t, and it’s a tremendous film for it. And while Brokeback Mountain is indeed a love story, let’s not gloss over the stakes.