Ang Lee’s western melodrama Brokeback Mountain is a film of wide-open spaces, lingering on the majestic mountain scenes in which Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal), two cowboys living in Wyoming, fall in love. While such shots evoke the grandeur of open spaces that define the American landscape (especially in Westerns), they also ironically comment upon the insularity of its characters, whose true desires must be kept out of the open.
After Ennis and Jack spend their first night together as lovers, Ennis goes back to his sheep to find one slaughtered by a wolf. It’s a particularly grotesque image – the sheep split down the middle with its red guts half-eaten and spilling out onto the grass – that strongly contrasts an otherwise idyllic scene in the mountains. We then get a reaction shot of Ennis’s face: a steely, stoic gaze that betrays his worry, regret, and fear by the slightest of movements in the corner of his mouth and the furrow of his eyebrows. It’s an especially poignant scene that speaks to the ever-present danger that threatens the love Ennis wants to experience with Jack, one which is repeated in the film through Ennis’s flashback of himself as a child seeing the mutilated body of a murdered homosexual. Ennis and Jack’s love within their place and time is not just forbidden – it is absolutely life-threatening.
And while the conflicting struggle of repression and desire is encompassed by both Ennis and Jack, it is really Ennis that centers the film’s exploration of tragedy. The late Heath Ledger gives maybe his best performance through Ennis, wearing years of psychological repression and self-loathing in his every gesture and expression. While Jack’s blue-eyed naïveté allows him to consider a life together with Ennis on a ranch, Ennis is the one haunted by demons, disallowing him to reciprocate Jack’s romanticism. Ennis’s reservation and self-constraint manifests itself not only in his relationship with Jack, but in his life as well, as he goes from one hired-hand job to the other until he winds up in a trailer, while Jack is able to at least make a good living. Towards the end of the film Ennis blames Jack for having nothing, hating his homosexuality in a way that never allows him to be at peace. Ennis’s tragedy is magnified, then, by Jack’s death, which in his mind affirms the unavoidable punishment for homosexuality (executed by those homophobic wolves that remain invisible), and makes his pain and loneliness that much more acute.
Throughout Lee’s film, the open spaces of the wilderness where Ennis and Jack escape a few times a year are rendered beautifully (by Rodrigo Prieto)– full of gorgeous colors and panoramic views – while the domestic spaces of homes, bars, and offices remain dull, lifeless, and gray. But even within those open spaces in the mountains there lingers dark clouds overhead, threatening to hail or snow suddenly, denying any complete refuge or safety from the rest of the world. In this way, Lee seems to be suggesting that no matter how wonderful Ennis and Jack’s love for each other can be, it will never be whole or complete because there is always an omnipresent danger of being found out. This idea is heartbreakingly repeated in the film sequence of the film in which Ennis brings his and Jack’s shirts to his face – items that retain the full memory of their relationship, but ones which are also stained with blood.
Now is the chance to re-experience this moving and darkly beautiful film on the big screen as part of the Films of Ang Lee series, which is playing at the Walter Reade Theater August 7th, 8th, and 11th. For more information on tickets and showtimes click here.
– Kazu Watanabe