Sunday, December 18, 2005

Brokeback Mountain

My initial impression of Brokeback Mountain was that it was a decent film. It doesn't have that strong of a plot, but it was certainly refreshing to see actual human beings on the screen, with complex emotions and forced to make difficult decisions. Particularly when the last film I saw was Harry Potter and the CGI Doo-Dads. In retrospect, though, I've come to like the film quite a bit more. The film is mostly about Heath Ledger's character.

During one of their idyllic frolics, Heath recounts the tale of two gay cowboys whose gruesome deaths he was forced to view as a child. The viewers are then treated to a depiction of the young cowpoke being taken to see the dismembered corpse. It's the first of three times in the movie that the audience sees something other than what's going on contemporaneous with the plot. That is, but for three exceptions, we have no flashbacks. And this flashback takes place strictly within Heath's point of view. We see what he sees.

The second time we flashback, it's when Heath and Jake are much older and have just had a bit of a fight. One of the characters flashes back to happier times. I can't recall whether Jake or Heath has the flashback. For the purposes of my argument, I hope that it's Heath.

Because the last flashback happens in a particularly important spot in the movie. Heath is on the phone, talking to Jake's widow, who recounts the events that led to Jake's death. She tells Heath that he had an accident while changing a tire on the road. As we're told this, the screen cuts from shots of Heath and the widow to a scene in which Jake is being beaten to death, presumably because he's gay.

And it was this element that led me to think that the film was actually quite mundane. Typically, Hollywood films that depict gay relationships have them end quite violently. Sometimes the gay character is eaten alive (Suddenly Last Summer), sometimes they commit suicide (The Children's Hour). It's rare that the gay character survives the third act. To the extent that Jake doesn't survive the third act, it's a typical Hollywood film. But there's an ambiguity here.

I think you can quite easily read this scene as a depiction of what's going on in Heath's mind. That is, it's not necessarily the truth of the thing that Jake was killed in the manner depicted.

Heath, throughout the film, is depicted as somebody whose unhappy childhood leads him to become taciturn and withdrawn, always afraid of expressing any of his thoughts. And if you read the Jake death scene this way, it fits quite well. Heath imagines that he knows what fate had to've come to his lover, it reinforces his own understanding of the world - that openness leads to death.

Of course, it is the truth that this can be the case, particularly in the context of gay cowboys in Texas in the 70's. But the film also suggests that the two might've run off and successfully run their own ranch in Wyoming.

Furthermore, the film ends with Heath agreeing to go to his daughter's wedding, at the risk of losing his job. After he does this, he caresses his dead lover's shirt and the movie's over. Although he could not, for his own sake, take the risk of following his heart, he can do it for his daughter. Which is to say that the film has a stronger plot under this reading, being the Heath Ledger character's slow, slow , slow (and incomplete) thaw into humanity. The film is then seen as being Ledger's struggle with the decision not to run off to the Wyoming ranch with Jake.

Now, my theory may just be "I don't want it to be that way". I mean, throughout the film, I really enjoyed Jake Gyllenhaal's character. Not to slight Heath, who's gotten all the acclaim, I just found Jake to be a more interesting character. His character's bought into the cowboy mystique in a charming way, such that I really don't want him to've been beaten to death for having been found out.

Of course, that's entirely possible, but then the movie becomes just another tragic gay flick, even if it's a pretty solid one.


washrambler said...

You have an interesting interpretation of the "flashback," but it is probably too subtle to be the "intended" interpretation. Also, the wife's tone as she described Jack's death seems to indicate that she was saying something "official" rather than something true.

As an aside: you probably shouldn't post the ending of the movie. Don't you think it would be a bit of a spoiler for those people who haven't seen it, but want to?

warm fuzzy said...

The flashback to happier times was Jake's character.

I think the flashback regarding Jack's death could be taken either as real or as Ennis' interpretation. Initally, I thought it was more as you described - Ennis thinking the worst. Eitherway is believable within the context of the story, but I think interpreting it as in Ennis' mind makes the story more powerful. I don't think it's meant to be clear what really did happen.

Fishfrog said...

I don't know what film you guys watched. The film I saw was a good old-fashioned cowboy flick, complete with horses, rodeos, and a bear. I'm not sure where you are getting these homosexual overtones. Heath and Jake where just a couple of cowboys, made in the classic mold. Need I remind you that both men were married with kids.

Nell said...

I don't think that you can ruin the end, in fact, I don't think that there was anything in the movie that could be ruined... because NOTHING HAPPENED. Now, I'm not saying its a bad movie, it did have excellent characterization, and I think that you're interpretation about the flashbacks is compelling, but whatever happened to having a plot. I mean seriously. It was quite literally a two-hour long short story, and for me that adds up to spending one of those hours just wondering when its going to end.

Matt said...

That's a good point, Nell, cos it is based on a New Yorker short story. And it really doesn't have that much of a plot.

scarlet panda said...

I chose to take the "in Heath's mind" interpretation of the final flashback when I watched the movie. I wonder what happened in the original short story.

Matt said...

Well, there's a google cache of the story here. It's pretty long, but I just might give it a read to see what's what.