If You Can’t Fix It, You’ve Got To Stand It: It’s Complicated Up On BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN

"The Gay Cowboy Movie" is more universal than you might realize.

Disclaimer: I did not title this month’s theme, and so I do not consider this to be a post about “wacky love” or “weird love,” but Evan’s kickoff yesterday mentioned that “love is difficult, and love isn’t always pretty,” and that sentiment fits the thoughts below pretty well.

There are a handful of films so emotional and so successful in their execution, I’ve found myself unable to rewatch them. Brokeback Mountain is one of those films - a tragic love story with themes of regret, sadness, and shame so expertly and accurately rendered that it’s literally too much for me to revisit.

While I don’t presume to know the gay experience, closeted or otherwise, I believe anyone who’s seen Brokeback Mountain will agree: the truths in the 2005 film transcend categories of sexual preference, gender, or even identity. Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) is in love with fellow ranch hand Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal). The two meet as youths, and over two decades their initial, explosive sexual passion settles into an easygoing affair that ebbs and flows, but is rooted in real, actual love. Despite this, Ennis has decided they can’t be together. Jack disagrees - he’s ready to drop everything and live openly with the love of his life, but Ennis, married with kids, can’t bring himself to make that same leap. “I’m stuck with what I got, caught in my own loop. Can’t get out of it.” Whatever Jack believes to be the case, this is Ennis’ truth. Ennis is a simple man, and he’s a married dude who lives in Wyoming. He can’t take up with another man and call him his lover. (He saw some guys try that when he was a kid, and it ended badly for them.) But Ennis’ fear has less to do with reprisals and more to do with being unable to be truthful to himself. He can’t even embrace Jack face to face, careful to always wrap his arms around the person he loves more than anyone on Earth from behind. Love and shame are at war inside Ennis, and it renders him halting, stiff, almost mute, and occasionally violent. When Ennis talks, it’s as if the weight of the world is crushing him.

Ennis’ plight engenders a lot of sympathy, but Ennis is also a selfish, demanding, and inadvertently cruel abuser. Ennis takes a real “it is what it is” position regarding their arrangement, steadfast that all he can give Jack is a weekend fishing trip here and there. As he tells Jack, “If you can’t fix it, you’ve got to stand it,” condemning them both to decades of soul-crushing “real life” with infrequent oases of joy. Yet when Jack makes overtures toward moving on and finding a replacement for Ennis, he is expected to remain “loyal” (regarding other men, at any rate; Ennis encourages Jack to get a wife), and threatened with violence by this man with whom he wants to spend his life.

Because of Ennis’ refusal to acknowledge their relationship, both men squander their lives. Ennis passively observes the growth of his daughters and the deterioration of his marriage, eventually isolating himself in a lonely old trailer. Jack plays the hand Ennis dealt him as best he can, trying (and failing) to settle down and trying to find someone to take Ennis’ place during the 50-odd weeks a year he can’t see his true love. His search is rewarded with a fatal beating in a field, drowning in his own blood. Ennis is condemned to spend the rest of his life (which is considerable; he’s 40 at the film’s finale) mourning not only Jack Twist, but mourning a life he denied himself, and mourning the person he chose not to be.

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, and you’ll be alone in even the most crowded room. If you make yourself unavailable to the one who loves you, that person will leave, and the only closure to which you can one day look forward is a returned postcard coldly stamped “DECEASED.” You’ll be doomed to replay your denied loved one’s last moments, the last moments for which you weren’t there, punishing yourself with your imagined version of their lonely death (as Ennis does in author Annie Proulx’s original story, thinking of “blood choking down Jack’s throat and nobody to turn him over”). Brokeback Mountain is maybe the best “It’s Complicated” love story ever made, but Ennis’ story is a nightmare. It’s the nightmare of every person who had an opportunity to follow their heart and chose not to, and lonesome old Ennis himself represents the sad consequences of every chance we never took, and of every love we let slip away.