Brokeback Mountain Is More Than Just The Gay Cowboy Movie

Many are introduced to Ang Lee’s 2005 masterpiece as the “Gay Cowboy Movie,” and that description is a cruel oversimplification. Brokeback Mountain is an epic of universal love. Besides being a film that brilliantly displays beautiful landscapes, boasts a director’s mastery in cinematic composition, and offers one of cinema’s all-time great performances in Heath Ledger’s portrayal of Ennis, Brokeback Mountain is a film that teaches us about the struggles of love through the lens of a rejected homosexual relationship.

That homosexual relationship and the hardships of it existing in a culture that doesn’t accept it is central to Brokeback Mountain, creating a setting and conflict for the story to follow through. However, it also lends itself to a deeper understanding of the general nuances of love and societal conformity.

The truths and emotions featured in Brokeback Mountain transcend categories of sexual preference, gender, or even identity. I don’t presume to know the homosexual experience, but I felt every beat of passion along the way.

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Ennis and Jack meet as young men working a summer job herding sheep in Wyoming. There’s an internal disorientation of masculinity hidden deep within both of these men and acted upon in different ways later in their lives. Jack is passive and yearning with an outsider’s desperation while Ennis is restrained and tough (oh God, Heath Ledger is too good in this movie). You know the drill: they reluctantly form a romance, start to open up to each other, and then end up going their separate ways at the end of the season.

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What follows is two decades of ebbing and flowing through life while still holding onto, and sometimes even trying to repudiate, some form of truth in the passion between them.

When Jack leaves in his truck for the first time, the two don’t really have much of a meaningful goodbye. “I guess I’ll see ya around then, huh?” Yet afterward, Ennis, a man who is always hard-skinned, breaks down in an alley, almost vomiting tears. There’s a confusion to love and it’s enhanced by the taboo he was raised to believe in. “I ain’t no queer,” he told Jack earlier. Maybe he’s not. Ennis never expressed interest in other men throughout the film, whereas Jack allegedly makes occasional trips to meet men that can fulfill his sexual desires. Ennis is drawn to Jack, the concept of Jack, the existence of Jack, and the warmth of Jack. There’s a pull between Ennis and Jack, Ennis understands that, and does not want to accept it. He’s there crying and convulsing, with an understanding that he just let go so easily of something that will become so integral to the fabrics of his heart. It’s the classic don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone with a layer of sensitive reluctance.

Love is painful. Love makes people do stupid things. And when you’re not supposed to love someone but you do anyway, the world around you collapses. Ennis gets married. Jack gets married. Society expects this of them. They lead lives apart from each other but the magnetism between them pulls too strong sometimes and forces the occasional tryst. Jack wanted a life together. Ennis is afraid of what he’s witnessed in the past, unwilling to go against societal norms, and selfish about wanting to hold onto Jack but at a distance. Ennis doesn’t want to want Jack but he more importantly doesn’t want Jack to want anyone else. ‘Why don’t you let me be? It’s because of you, Jack, that I’m like this — nothing, and nobody.’ Ennis Del Mar is a very interior character, someone who can’t be played in big motions or expressions. Ledger uses every bit of his body to tell the story of this character. Both Ennis and Jack embody complex personalities dealing with a situation they have no archetype to draw from. They don’t want to be gay. Moreover, they don’t know how. Jack’s come to accept it at this point, however, and regrets the fact that all they’ll ever have is Brokeback Mountain.

My favorite scene in the film features Ennis and his family at a 4th of July fireworks display. Nearby are a couple of guys discussing local women in a repulsive manner, so Ennis confronts them to violently put them in their place. He stands up, having completed his deed, with the camera at a low angle juxtaposing a man seemingly larger than life with the grandiose fireworks shooting up behind him. Here he is, masculinity embodied, with a literal fanfare of fireworks – ‘Murica! – having beaten up a couple of hooligans. Yet this hateful act is more socially acceptable than his love for Jack. The perceived wrong kind of love is less tolerable than hate.

It’s this societal need for masculinity that forces the two men to squander their own lives. Ennis witnesses the deterioration of his own marriage and his entire world is compressed to the isolation of a small mobile home, yet he always feels the same pain. Jack plays the hand dealt to him by Ennis, struggling to get by on maybe a few days of seeing each other in a year, and he’s beaten to death when looking for some kind of interim satisfaction. Ennis is condemned to spend the rest of his life mourning not only Jack, but also mourning a life he denied himself, and mourning the person he chose not to be. All he has now is his shirt hugging Jack’s shirt from that first summer they spent together at Brokeback Mountain.

The lesson Ennis teaches us is a haunting one: you deny your true self at your peril. When you shut yourself down, that also means no one can get in. If you make yourself unavailable to the one who loves you, the only closure to which you can one day look forward is a returned postcard coldly stamped “DECEASED.”

Brokeback Mountain is an unrelentingly raw representation of a tragic love story, beautifully and accurately rendered with regret, sadness, and shame. It shows a truly loving relationship that is doomed because of societal structures, as well as how otherwise good men will ruin the lives of the people around them because they must live a lie.

It is the story of a time and place where two men are forced to deny the only great passion either one will ever feel. Their tragedy is universal. Brokeback Mountain easily could’ve been just the “Gay Cowboy Movie.” It could’ve just been melodrama. But there’s a superb passion and focus that observes the characters of Ennis and Jack that turns Brokeback Mountain into something much more. Roger Ebert said about the topic: “The more specific a film is, the more universal, because the more it understands individual characters, the more it applies to everyone.” It’s not just about a homosexual relationship. Hell, it doesn’t even have to be just about love. It examines how people’s understandings of society repress their endeavors to lead the lives they want. I don’t think Ennis would ever identify as a gay man. I think he just happens to love Jack. But it’s his understanding of society that perpetuates the tragic outcomes of his life. And instead of representing a beautiful love, Ennis ends up representing the sad consequences of every chance we never took, and of every love we let slip away.

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Brokeback Mountain Is More Than Just The Gay Cowboy Movie. (2022, Jan 28). Retrieved from

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