Brokeback Mountain (2005) is available to rent or buy. Brokeback Mountain (a play with music) is now showing at Soho Place London.
Brokeback Mountain is a good movie. I don’t think this is a controversial opinion, but the film’s substance isn’t what’s often discussed when its name comes up in conversation. There’s its contentious snub for Best Picture in favour of Crash. Even at the time, the Paul Haggis film’s treatment of contemporary race relations was decried as ham-fisted to the point of being utterly obtuse, and its reputation has only worsened since. But even without the Oscar politics, Brokeback Mountain still has to contend with all the sophomoric “gay cowboy” jokes cracked by people trying to obscure their discomfort at being asked to take a romantic drama about two men seriously. Of course, in 2005, plenty of pundits and talk radio hosts did not try to disguise their contempt for the film. It became a lightning rod for conservative America’s collective anxieties about the cultural shift that was taking place towards greater public acceptance of homosexuality.
It can feel daunting to approach a film that’s accumulated so much cultural baggage. But right from the start, the movie draws you into its world. When casual labourers Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar (Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger) make that first trek up the titular mountain with the sheep they’ve been hired to tend in the summer of 1963, you feel the grim atmosphere of the one-horse town at its foothills fall away. The dusty greys give way to lush green grass and babbling streams. There’s something almost Edenic about it.
It also sets the film up as one of two deliberately unequal halves. In the first, Ennis and Jack’s tentative romance unfurls in the isolation of the mountain, with the more outgoing Jack bringing Ennis out of the shell that’s hardened around him after the loss of his parents and passive abandonment by his siblings. When foreman Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid) spots them in a compromising position through his binoculars, their fledgling romance is abruptly terminated, and they’re cast out into a kind of wilderness. They leave the mountain knowing what society has deemed forbidden, with no safe way to act on their love. It’s a situation that results in anguish not just for themselves but for their families. Their lives after that are lived entirely in the shadow of this rupture.
It’s a film where nobody wins, and nobody’s happy. This is one of the reasons why its reputation within the queer community has been so complicated. I find the movie’s characterisation as voyeuristic trauma porn for straight people uncharitable. Best Picture snub notwithstanding, it is possible to understand the film’s positive reception in the broader context of movies like Philadelphia and Boys Don’t Cry – films with a heavy and self-serious focus on queer suffering and trauma gain recognition from the Academy, while movies that reject this approach are dismissed or ignored altogether. Breakfast on Pluto was released the same year as Brokeback Mountain and received no attention from the Academy despite a Best Actor nomination for Cillian Murphy at the Golden Globes.
But all this is much more an indictment of the state of cinema than Brokeback Mountain itself. There’s never an on-the-nose moment in the film where one of the leads speaks wistfully of some hypothetical future where they might be free to live openly, allowing straight progressives in the audience to pat themselves on the back for being the products of a more enlightened age. That kind of grandstanding gesture fits in more with our current era of Disney’s umpteenth “first gay character”, which can be easily edited out in hostile markets, than in a film that was released only two years after the US’s last remaining laws criminalising gay sex were struck down by the landmark Lawrence v. Texas decision.
Viewers watching the film for the first time are discovering that the story in Brokeback Mountain is just as impactful now as it was almost twenty years ago. All the noise surrounding its initial release has dissipated, and we are left with a simple but emotionally intense story that’s impeccably well-executed. Gustavo Santaolalla’s score is the unsung hero of the film. His spare, plaintive arrangements truly elevate the emotional beats of the narrative, giving a non-verbal articulation of what the characters are either incapable of or prevented from expressing.
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN STARRING MIKE FAIST AND LUCAS HEDGES (SOHO PLACE LONDON)
A theatrical adaptation of Brokeback Mountain, described as a “play with music”, is now running on the West End. While this is technically an adaptation of Annie Proulx’s original short story rather than the film, I strongly suspect London’s theatre-going public will not be buying tickets because they read Proulx’s work in the 1997 edition of the New Yorker, where it was first published. Instead, they will likely purchase tickets due to the ongoing power and legacy of the film. The movie is about how the story of Brokeback Mountain was brought into the public consciousness and left a lasting impact on the cinematic landscape. You might be a complete cynic and regard films that came after it, like A Single Man or The Danish Girl, as nothing more than exercises in mining queer trauma for Oscar bait. But without Brokeback Mountain, would these or any of the other major queer Oscar contenders that came after them have received attention, and would they even have been produced in the first place?