Brokeback Mountain, directed by Ang Lee, is a simple and complex love story between two people. It is simple because it has also been called a straightforward gay love story as well as a bisexual love story. While those points of view are valid on some level, this is a complex love story, because labeling it as something other than an intense love story between two people torn by the complexities of their personal lives, their commitments, and their sometimes conflicted sexuality cheapens that story for voyeuristic mass consumption. Yes, the sex is an important part of their romantic relationship, as it is to any romantic relationship, but it is only a part of that romantic relationship.
Jack and Ennis meet innocently enough, herding sheep one summer on Brokeback Mountain. It is a beautiful place filled with sweeping, lonely, rolling feminine hills inviting both into her warmth, even in the cold of the winter. Loneliness is something that they also bring to the mountain and while they seem to fight themselves to stay one step ahead of this loneliness, it and their emotions overtake them one night and they find themselves together entangled in a physical embrace that quickly turns to sexual intercourse that Ennis at first devalues as, “This is a one shot thing we got goin’ on here,” implying that their relationship only serves a physical and sexual need but not a romantic one. To reinforce that fact, Ennis does not kiss Jack during this first encounter.
In screen time, though not in real time, this quickly turns out not to be the case. Ennis marries Alma and they have two children. But Ennis does not seem to passionately kiss Alma, either. He continues to remain quiet and dispassionate until he hears from Jack four years later and once they meet all of his passion and emotion bleed through his being as Jack and Ennis kiss, love, and fight intensely, emotionally and physically unlike the relationships that they have with their respective wives. The mountain represents their passion and allows them to be themselves though they hide their feelings for one another to the outside world.
This is not so unusual, given that to one and maybe the other of the characters do not view this relationship as “homosexual,” and homosexual as a personality type is only a century or so old and existing in only parts of the world. And while homosexual sex is not heterosexual sex, sex does not define a man as a homosexual. (Kimmel et al 2004: 52). However, they both seem distracted and dispassionate in their “normal” life and only seem to come alive when they are together, primarily joined on the mountain.
And because Ennis especially does not view himself as a homosexual, he is disturbed by Jack’s offer to leave their families and start a ranch together and live happily ever after and thus refuses Jack’s offer. This is especially sharp as the flashback of Ennis’ father dragging his two sons to see a dead man that “may have been living in sin with another man” presages Ennis’ imagined murder of Jack in a ditch with a tire iron.
The masculinity of each character is varied. Jack does not seem to try that hard though he does paternally assert himself as a father to his son on two occasions, once driving him around on a combine in the sales yard and second at Thanksgiving dinner when he insists that his son concentrate on his meal rather than the television, even going so far as to assert himself to his father-in-law for the very first time. Ennis, on the other hand, seems to assert his masculinity at very decisive moments as if to prove to himself that he is truly a man, to push back the demons in his head that seem to “know” that he is not “normal”. It is in these moments and on the mountain with Jack, whether fighting, arguing, or loving, that Ennis seems to be truly alive and living in the moment. Jack only seems to be alive with Ennis. He only exists to awaken the next moment on the mountain.
While the relationship between the two men is not conflicted for Jack, it is for Ennis’ as Ennis comes from a world where men are supposed to be as masculine as possible, where that means domination of a female, no sissy stuff, and sexuality is defined as sex, but only with a female. This complicates everything that Ennis does his entire life. He does not really love any other women, though he tries. In spite of himself, Jack consumes him, and he has a tender side that he rarely reveals, afraid to be perceived as an effeminate man with an emotional side. (Kimmel et al 2004: 181-182)
This is a beautiful film, though it is not easy to watch. The emotions built and built until I was completely caught up with emotions that are intense, romantic, and charged. This was made apparent as I had time to reflect upon the film. It reminded me of a relationship that has been at once romantic, intense, platonic, and complicated, with a woman, my best friend. Ennis will grow to be less conflicted but he will never stop loving Jack.
Kimmel, M. S., Hearn, J., & Connell, R. (Eds.). (2004). Queering The Pitch. In Handbook of Studies on Men and Masculinities (pp. 51-68). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Kimmel, M. S., Hearn, J., & Connell, R. (Eds.). (2004). Male Sexualities. In Handbook of Studies on Men and Masculinities (pp. 178-195). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.