Iconic cowboys in love: the contradictions of Brokeback Mountain

It feels like the last taboo, an unwritten law: Thou shalt not depict gay cowboys. Yet by calmly and meticulously doing just that, Ang Lee gets the last laugh at all of those insecure heterosexual guys who have their masculinity threatened by the topic. Yet, when watching Brokeback Mountain, one immediately sees why cowboy love makes a natural subject for a film. You still can include all of the swooning unspoiled mountain scenery, the iconic Western duds, the horseback riding adventures, the tendency to act with one’s cowboy hat over one’s eyes, but now the subject has been turned on its head. One realizes one has seen two lovable cowboys before, especially in films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and usually they had more fun chumming around out in the wild, but not like this.

Brokeback Mountain begins simply enough with Jack and Ennis (Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger) meeting awkwardly in 1963 as they take on a summer job herding sheep across Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming. Randy Quaid plays the gruff, suspicious fellow who hires them, and the two cowboys spend much of the beginning of the film wishing they had something else to eat beside beans as they ride horses and carry baby sheep across mountain streams. At high altitudes, the weather gets cold, so they are obliged to share a tent where Jack initiates an intimacy between them that Ennis initially wants to deny, but finds he really can’t.

I had thought the whole film would take place up on the mountain and the story would get coy and melodramatic fast, but screenwriter Larry McMurtry, working from a short story by Annie Proulx, quickly separates the two men once the summer ends, and they lead more typical heterosexual lives for years. Conflicted by his attraction to Jack, Ennis marries Alma (Michelle Williams), and fathers two girls in rapid succession. Jack returns to his life of rodeo riding, but both men can’t seem to shake Brokeback Mountain or the memory of each other from their heads. Ennis’s natural cowboy reticence adds tension to the film because he can’t express what’s going on.

As iconic as a Marlboro Man, Heath Ledger is good at looking away and squinting into the sunlit distance. His character can express himself by beating up some random guy in a truck or by smoking cigarettes and drinking beer all night in a bar, but his relationship with Jack does not compute. When he was young, his father led him out to see a man who had been savagely tortured, dismembered, and killed once his fellow cowboys figured out that his “friend” was gay, so Ennis’s whole cultural upbringing does not allow his sexual orientation to really exist, and yet it does anyway.

Ultimately, Brokeback Mountain shows Taiwan-born director Ang Lee’s take on the conflicted nature of the cowboy as he represents reticence, independence, and the wilderness. Lee suggests that even as American men resist being domesticated by women, the West has already become more an idea than a reality. Compared to the sweep and grandeur of camping in the mountains, crude civilization constrains us more and more each day. By depicting a love story that society does not allow to exist openly, the film is full of small moments of connection that are all the more compelling because they are so constrained. A simple gesture like placing a shirt in a paper bag carries within it all a mother cannot say to Ennis because her entire culture, let alone her husband, won’t allow it. Interestingly, given the way the story works out, the institution of marriage is shown to be just as problematic as gay unions.

The film very carefully does not tilt its bias in any direction, refusing to allow anyone to appear the easy villain. Much of the time, Hollywood movies tend to treat pro-gay sentiments as a politically correct badge of honor. For instance, “The Family Stone” makes a point of affirming the younger son’s open relationship with another man, but that is all the film does. Beyond their approved status, the two men didn’t have any real characters. Instead, they are treated as symbols for the filmmaker’s liberal sentiments. Brokeback Mountain resists this easy way out by allowing Ennis and Jack to have their flaws. Their relationship is enormously destructive to their marriages, but we don’t feel easy condemning them because of Ang Lee’s evenhanded treatment of everyone.

Within its gorgeous cinematography and graceful understated acting, Brokeback Mountain carries a radical agenda. By forcing us to associate gay love with the pristine wilderness of Wyoming, it questions our most basic symbol of tongue-tied masculinity, and the many ways the cowboy’s code of honor makes him both iconic and self-destructive.