If you ask someone to name a queer film, chances are they will say “Brokeback Mountain.”
Released in 2005, this Neo-Western romantic drama begins in the 1960s in the mountains of Wyoming. Jake Gyllenhaal is Jack Twist and Heath Ledger is Ennis Del Mar, a couple of sheepherders whose work on Brokeback Mountain leads to a beautiful and heart-wrenching romance that develops between them — or so I was led to believe.
After hearing only fantastic things every time the movie came up in conversation, I finally decided to sit down and educate myself.
The endeavor began with high hopes. Immediately, the landscapes astound. The woods and mountains of America’s West convey a sense of serenity, as well as an air of promise. Jack and Ennis are alone on Brokeback Mountain save for the sheep under their care, spending their days trekking through the wilderness and eating cans of baked beans. The only sounds are the callings of hawks and the melancholy guitar strums of the soundtrack. It seems that the solitude of their setting will allow them to explore their identities free from the judgemental eyes of society.
But what unfolds is less of a romance and more of an amalgamation of lust and self-hatred that continues until the film’s close. Both men begin their shared journey virtually silent except for the occasional curt exchange of banalities, each seeming quite apprehensive of the other. Starting this way could have been an opportunity for the two characters to experience emotional development as they begin to trust and confide in each other. Instead, weeks on Brokeback Mountain seem to go by without any significant conversation between the two, let alone romantic tension.
Then, with little lead-up, Jack and Ennis have a drunken sexual encounter one night after they are forced to share a tent due to the biting cold. Even this experience is devoid of any semblance of romance; there is aggression, conflict, and confused passion, sure, but no affection. After the men consummate their relationship the first time, this still does not bring on any significant emotional or interpersonal growth. The two seem to pretend like it never happened, until one day, sitting out on the mountain, Ennis succinctly states: “You know I ain’t queer.” To which Jack responds, “Me neither.” Great talk.
To my dismay, Jack and Ennis finish their sheepherding assignment and part ways just 40 minutes into this over two hour film — I had been under the impression that the whole plot takes place on Brokeback Mountain. With this goes one of the film’s most redeeming qualities, which was its gorgeous, artistic scenery. But perhaps it’s still possible for Jack and Ennis to develop their relationship even though they’re no longer on the mountain herding sheep together?
I was a fool to hope. The rest of the movie is not even given the chance to develop romance, as Jack and Ennis simply do not share the screen. Ennis returns to his fiancée, Alma (Michelle Williams), in Wyoming, and the two get married and have two daughters. Jack is shown performing in rodeos in Texas, where he meets, marries, and has a child with Lureen Newsome (Anne Hathaway). Although Jack and Ennis are shown to reunite periodically over several years and take “fishing trips” together to Brokeback Mountain, the vast majority of runtime is spent focusing on the dynamics of each of their individual lives.
The rest of the film attempts to demonstrate the strained relationships the men have with their wives and children, presumably due to years of repressing their true queer identities and love for each other. Unfortunately, these relationships can be added to the long list of underdeveloped dynamics in “Brokeback Mountain.” Where there was potential, for instance, to expound upon the men’s roles as husbands and fathers, this was greatly stifled by a plethora of erratic and undelineated time jumps. It is understandable, of course, that trying to convey over 20 years worth of narrative is difficult. However, when the audience has trouble keeping track of whether one year, five years, or 15 years have passed between two consecutive scenes, this is probably a good indicator that the film’s timeline is unclear. The movie eventually ends when Ennis receives a postcard informing him that Jack is deceased, and he travels to Jack’s parents’ home to retrieve a portion of his ashes to scatter on Brokeback Mountain.
It is essential to the intention of “Brokeback Mountain” to convey the impacts of both societal and internalized homophobia on these gay men, and this is absolutely a valid and important goal. It is clear that the protagonists — and Ennis in particular — are meant to be struggling with severe internal conflicts about their queerness. One problem with the portrayal of this, however, is that the manifestation of their repression is exceptionally frustrating. The film conveys this internal conflict through the men’s intense aggression, anger, and tension; the two seem unable to communicate or process their feelings in a remotely healthy way. At one point, Ennis punches Jack in the nose during one of their shared bouts of aggression, a point that is never again addressed. Both men constantly ooze self-hatred and bucketloads of angst, which is not exactly a recipe for an enjoyable film. One thing is for certain, though, and this is that “Brokeback Mountain” truly wrote the book on homoerotic playfighting.
This leads to the next and more pressing problem, which is that there is exactly zero character development for either Jack or Ennis throughout the entire film. Jack continues in his same naïve outlook, in which he believes that he and Ennis should buy a ranch together and live happily ever after. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Ennis is a walking ball of tension and pessimism, continuing to deny his identity and appearing to continue to engage with Jack only against his best efforts at repression. I would like to specifically note that the problem is not inherent to each of Jack or Ennis’s individual flaws (flawed characters tend, in fact, to make good movies), but rather lies in the fact that neither grows or changes at all. Up until the very end of the film, their personas remain precisely the same, and it ultimately leads to both of their downfalls: Ennis divorced, purposeless, and Jack the victim of a (presumably) homophobically-motivated murder.
The overall result is a film about their romance except it seems that there is no enjoyment whatsoever being had in this relationship. The trouble with the film’s execution is that the men seem only to suffer from their gay identity and never experience a real sense of love or fulfillment. Even when they’re together, Jack and Ennis are mute, and their relationship is primarily physical and sexual, consisting primarily of roughhousing or fights. As a viewer, it is difficult to feel invested in this dynamic if you haven’t been given any glimpses into why the two are attracted to each other as people, what forms the foundation of this allegedly deep and passionate bond.
Still, the film was well-received by critics and the public alike. At the 78th Academy Awards in 2006, Brokeback Mountain was nominated for Best Picture and won for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Original Score. Today, 88% of Google users report liking this movie, it has a 88% on Rotten Tomatoes, and — perhaps most impressively — it sports a 4.1 star rating on Letterboxd, a notoriously critical platform.
I can admit that the movie is relatively well-made (score, acting performances, cinematography, etc.) and that it boasts a star-studded cast including Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, but also Anne Hathaway, Michelle Williams, Linda Cardellini, Anna Farris, David Harbour, and Kate Mara. It also cannot be disputed that the film does maintain a significant place in queer cinema. It consistently finds itself on lists of the best BGLTQ+ movies of all time, and can be lauded for centering the story of two gay men in 2005 when such topics were still heavily stigmatized.
However, the film has since been eclipsed by much better queer films that portray gay love in a more nuanced and thoughtful way. Looking back on “Brokeback Mountain” with the benefit of hindsight and today’s critical eye, it seems that the film was hurt by its preoccupation with portraying gay people in a palatable way for straight audiences.
This is most obvious in the film’s focus on queer pain. Yes, this was the reality of the time in which the story takes place, but the movie completely misses any opportunity it had to portray subversive queer joy, resistance, and transformative love. It is important to portray the trials of queer existence in a homophobic society in a way that is honest and uncensored, but focusing only on these struggles is not healthy, either.
Maybe I had unrealistic or misguided expectations for this movie. Maybe I just didn’t understand some profound message hidden within. Either way, I unfortunately found the film to be a frustrating and depressing creation that somehow uses its lengthy two-hour-plus run time to develop exactly nothing. If you enjoy films about queer misery, hopelessness, and a lack of agency in an inhospitable society, then “Brokeback Mountain” is the movie for you.
—In her column “Gaywatch,” Julia J. Hynek ’24’s offers her opinions on prominent queer movies from the last twenty years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.