Brokeback Mountain is beautifully acted, powerfully told, and lovely to look at. I’m glad I saw it. All the same, I don’t believe it, in the specific and damaging way in which it is possible not to believe in a work of fiction.
Prolonged spoiler follows, but is necessary for the argument.
The plot concerns Jack and Enis, two young, dirt-poor, cowboy shepherds who fall in love one summer high on the side of Brokeback Mountain. One drunken night they find that sex with each other more satisfying than anything else that the world has to offer. They don’t know what to do about this. "This doesn’t mean I’m queer" says one of them, after their night in the blankets.
When they return to the plains, and to life among people, Jack, the dark, pretty one drives off without a backward glance; Ennis, the fair and handsome one walks manfully down the road until his friend is out of sight, then breaks up sobbing in a drainage culvert.
Ennis marries his fiancée. They have two children, in well-observed poverty. It’s incredibly hard for American films to do lack of glamour convincingly, but I thought this was perfect, You could almost smell the linoleum and cheaply painted gimcrack furniture. The only false note in the picture of poverty came right at the end where an old farmer’s wife – another wonderful performance – had shapely legs. Real peasant women have calves like vegetable marrows.
The next summer, Jack pitches up again, looking for work on Brokeback mountain, but Ennis is not there and the rancher turns him away, letting him know that he saw them sporting through his binoculars.
Three go by. Jack works on the rodeo, poor, tough, determined, until he catches the eye of a pretty heiress (her daddy sells combine harvesters). They marry. He’s taken into Daddy’s firm, though treated like dirt. But now he has enough money to drive back to Wyoming and find Ennis. He sends a postcard saying he is going to visit and this sends Ennis into a frenzy. He completely ignores his wife, waits by the window smoking and drinking for hours, and then, when Jack turns up, rishes out into the yard, kisses him hungrily for several minutes, and they drive at once to the nearest motel to freshen their acquaintance. When they return to the house they set off at once on a fishing trip to Brokeback Mountain.
His wife, who has seen their reunion clinch from the window, says nothing. So far, so believable – and superb acting as well.
The years go by. The marriage deteriorates, and Jack keep driving up from Texas to go on fishing trips on Brokeback Mountain. Ennis’ wife leaves him for the manager of the store where she works. He remains devoted to their children, poor, tough, silent and stoical. He’s the perfect cowboy, in fact, except for one thing. And that one thing keeps happening.
Over the next fourteen or fifteen years Jack keeps driving up from Texas, and begs Ennis to set up house with him. Ennis won’t he won’t leave his children, and he knows he can’t set up house with another man in Wyoming. He starts an affair with a barmaid (blonde, knocked about a bit, heart of gold) but it doesn’t go anywhere. He gets poorer, more isolated, no less tough and decent, except for one terrible freakout when he learns, at thanksgiving with her new family, that his wife knew all along what he’d been doing on Brokeback.
Jack, meanwhile, gets richer, and even slaps down his monstrous father-in-law. He starts seeing Mexican boys, and then, in a scene that is both desperately funny and a beautifully subdued portrait of desperation, meets another gay Texan at a country club dance.
On his next visit to Wyoming, he tells Ennis that he has started an affair with a rancher’s wife. They fight, because Ennis won’t leave. The next year, Jack does not return; when Ennis sends a postcard, it is returned, marked "deceased". He rings, from a payphone and the widow tells him that Jack was killed in a freak roadside accident, when a tyre he was changing blew up, and he drowned in his own bleed but as she speaks, we see what really happened: Jack is being beaten to death on the roadside by three young men armed with tyre irons. She does not say, any more than Ennis’ wife had done for years, that she knew what had been going on. She tells Ennis to find the half of his ashes that Jack had said he wanted scattered on Brokeback mountain.
Ennis travels to Jack’s parents’ shack. He cannot have the ashes, but he does take from Jack’s bedroom the bloodstained shirt that Jack had been wearing when he first seduced him, and which had been hanging, miraculously unwashed, in his cupboard all this time. At the end of the film, he is living in a trailer. On the inside of the cupboard door is pasted a photograph of the mountain. Next to it hangs the bloody shirt, which he holds, and sobs into, silently.
The trouble is, I can’t believe in Ennis. Every other character in the film is perfectly written and acted. They have recognisable struggles, temptations, and triumphs. I don’t have any problem with the idea that some cowboys had sex with each other; nor with the related but distinct claim that some of them loved each other. Obviously there are quite a lot of gay men who are married and who love their children. Jack, for example, is a man who likes sex with both men and women, but prefers it with men. Perfectly recognisable type. But Ennis is different. He likes sex with women, and with one particular man.
For nineteen years, or maybe longer, he sacrifices everything in his life for his trips with Jack but he won’t go any further than occasional camping trips. Now love can work like that, but lust, in my experience, doesn’t and his relationship to Jack is both loving and punctuated with uncontrollable lust. It is not just manly companionship and silent understanding that he craves: it is the hot sweet taste of cowboy bottom which leads him to rush away from his wife and children and snog Jack senseless in the parking lot.
Now, if he wants it that badly, how can he ration himself to one or two trips a year? And, if what he wants so desperately is sex with men, how does he confine himself to one man once a year? I’m not gay, but I am a man, and if there were a woman I could only sleep with for a fortnight a year, in summer, sometime around January at the latest I would start looking at waitresses with new interest, however much I loved my summer love. Complete celibacy must be easier than self-discipline for fifty weeks of the year.
Jack changes and develops as the film goes on. Ennis never does. He remains the strong silent Western hero to the end. And I just can’t believe that happening over nineteen years. Each individual vignette of their lives is completely convincing. But the cumulative effect is as incredible as the miraculously unwashed shirt in the closet at Jack’s parents’ shack, as false and sentimental as John Wayne.