Brokeback Mountain, the film of the Annie Proulx novella about the love affair between two lonesome cowboys, has inevitably sparked a series of internet jokes about life on the range. The film would probably have the likes of John Wayne spinning in his grave (then again, Wayne’s real name was Marion Morrison).
The film stays remarkably faithful to the novella and the choice of Larry McMurtry to write the screenplay (along with Diana Ossana) was a shrewd one. McMurtry comes from an extended family of cowboys – his father and more than half a dozen uncles were cowboys – and most of his literary work is set in the West. McMurtry’s sympathy for the often stoic characters in his own work, which has done much to demythologise the old West, transfers well to Brokeback Mountain.
Dialogue, like the landscape, is sparse. And like the wide, empty Wyoming landscape, this is a story of spaces – of the spaces between human beings, people’s ability to bridge those spaces and the way in which the possibility of closing the spaces is inhibited by the shape of society at any point in time.
In this case, we gain glimpses of the United States, or at least part of the West, over several decades from the early 1960s until the 1980s.
One summer, Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, two young cowboys minding sheep up on Brokeback Mountain, end up in the sack together, beginning a long but painfully lonely love affair. After the summer they go their separate ways, Ennis being incapable of carrying on the affair after their job on the mountain is over.
Several years later, Ennis gets a postcard from Jack, now living in Texas, saying he will be up that way shortly and would like to meet up. Although both men are now married, as soon as they meet again they can’t keep their hands off each other. Through marital problems – Ennis and his wife eventually divorce, while Jack stays in an increasingly loveless marriage – they meet once or twice a year for “fishing trips”, in which the only tackle that gets used doesn’t have anything to do with catching fish.
Although Jack suggests that they buy a farm and live together, Ennis is unable to face the possibility of commitment to an open, ongoing relationship. Emotionally crippled by homophobia, he is also haunted by a childhood experience in which his father took him and his brother to see the mutilated corpse of a local farmer who had lived with his male partner and been killed for it.
Jack and Ennis are clearly the love of each other’s life, but the time and place and their own inability to fully open up to each other prove to be spaces that cannot be bridged. It’s perhaps only with Jack’s death that Ennis realises how much Jack loved him and that we see how much Ennis was also in love with Jack.
Brokeback is a powerful, moving love story. It is also a story of how a screwed-up society screws up people, often with tragic consequences.