9. Brokeback Mountain (2005; Ang Lee)
“Jack, I swear…”
In 2005, I named Steven Spielberg’s Munich as the best film of the year, and Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain was a very close second. I don’t often change my mind in regards to my favorite picture of the year, but 2005 is a rare exception. Don’t get me wrong – Munich just barely missed my Best Films of the Decade list, and I personally believe that it’s one of the finest and most uncompromising films Spielberg has ever made. But Brokeback Mountain has resonated for me in a way that I didn’t fully expect upon first seeing it in December 2005.
For one, director Ang Lee achieved something few directors can nowadays – he created a breathtakingly beautiful art house film that also managed to enrapture (most) mainstream audiences with a powerfully moving love story at its center. Lee uses the empty blue skies and vast, open prairies of Wyoming to dwarf God’s lonely cowboy Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) through years of pain and loneliness. Brokeback Mountain is one of the most assured directorial efforts of the decade – Lee is in total control as a filmmaker, contrasting the rich landscape of the 1960s American West with the sadness and sexual insecurities of the film’s protagonists.
In the process of his superlative direction, Lee somehow also made a movie that brought teenage girls back to the cinema over and over again – the love story between Ennis and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) was this generation’s answer to the doomed romance between Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) in James Cameron’s Titanic (1997).
And yet it's not the love story that brings me back again and again to Brokeback Mountain, although the film is certainly remarkable for its cultural influence and its understanding of homosexuality in 1960s America. In fact, Brokeback Mountain wouldn’t resonate at all as a motion picture if it were merely a political statement on homosexual rights, or simply a film pushing a political agenda.
Yes, on its face, Brokeback Mountain is a tragic love story between two men in a time period where such a love was frowned upon by society (and, of course, is still frowned upon today, although in fewer numbers).
But at the film’s core is the tragic story of Ennis Del Mar, a character as existential, lonely and isolated as Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) or Joe Buck (Jon Voight) from John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969). He comes from nowhere. He’s not educated. He’s already an outsider – he’s a cowboy in an age where cowboys aren’t really a cultural identity anymore, at least in the traditional sense (outlaw gunslingers were replaced by drunken good ol’ boys sometime during the twentieth century). He is alienated even further from society by his confusion with his sexual orientation.
Is he gay? He might be, although he might very well be bisexual. His relationship with Jack is formed, though, by circumstance – the fact that they’re two very lonely individuals who share one thing in common: a misplaced sense of identity, both sexually and culturally. Are Ennis and Jack meant to be together? I don’t think that’s the point – Brokeback Mountain is not a film about eternal love or soul mates.
The tragedy of Brokeback Mountain is that Ennis and Jack never really find out if they’re meant to be together. They never feel the joy and pain that most couples experience because, no matter how hard the two men attempt to feign some semblance of a lasting relationship, that summer they spent together on Brokeback Mountain is simply an elusive, nostalgic memory, incapable of being recaptured, especially after both men marry and have children.
The final scene of Brokeback Mountain, which takes place after Jack’s death, shows Ennis living alone in a trailer. His grown daughter visits him and announces that she is getting married. Watch Heath Ledger’s face during this final scene – without hardly saying a word, the actor gives us the life story of Ennis Del Mar in a few seconds. His eyes welling up with tears as his daughter drives away, he touches Jack’s blue-jean jacket, which hangs in his closet. Next to the jacket is a postcard from Brokeback Mountain. Ennis wants to share the news of his daughter’s marriage to his good friend, but there’s nobody there. It’s one of the quietest and most powerful scenes in cinematic history, anchored by Ledger in the finest performance of this decade. Jack, I swear, indeed.