By the time Ed and Patsy Bruce penned the country hit “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” in 1975, the Western world’s modifications to the traditional cowboy archetype were solidly etched into America’s collective cultural consciousness. After decades of Western films and pulp Western novels, the American cowboy was an easy figure to recognize by the final quarter of the century, and the Bruce family’s lyrical ballad leans on all of his trademarks: the belt buckles, the jeans, the guitars, the old trucks. But the song’s greater thematic purpose involved a more prominent and less concrete aspect of the cowboy stereotype, as evidenced by the repeated line within the chorus: “They’ll never stay home and they’re always alone/Even with someone they love.”
We recognize that Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) is something of a cowboy the second he appears onscreen in Brokeback Mountain, a film that celebrates the tenth anniversary of its American release today. He wears the hat, the jeans, the belt buckle. He has the commonly expressionless face and the working man’s weary posture. But we also know that Ennis lives the lonely cowboy life before we even get to hear him speak. Ennis arrives into the movie having hitched a ride from a truck driver, which is coincedentally perhaps the second loneliest archetypal lifestyle in America’s mythologized history. Ennis steps out of the cab of the truck into a sequence of shots that are, except for the character and the grass upon which he walks, still and lifeless. Director Ang Lee and his cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto quickly frame Ledger in screen stillness and excruciating quiet, an introduction through the imagery of a post-post-apocalyptic psychic landscape.
But we are familiar with Ennis’ borrowed brand of aloneness by way of more than just the screen cues. The Western genre and its peripheral offshoots are filled with heroes, anti-heroes, and villains who either symbolically refute or literally combat the mono-amorous partnership structure. From Paddy Carmody’s (Robert Mitchum) non-committal, non-affectionate shrug toward his wife in 1960’s The Sundowners to 2007’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma, wherein Russell Crowe’s Ben Wade stands in the center of a corpse circle after having laid waste to his posse as an expression of his hopeless and mourning admiration for family man Dan Evans (Christian Bale), the line is bold and traceable. Characters who borrow from or move within the cowboy archetype reliably protest America’s standard domestic conventions. The pattern is so thorough and consistent that by the 2000s, it felt more like expectation than expression, and Heath Ledger, as Ennis Del Mar, when introduced as an archetype, carries this expectation of hyper-masculinity into Brokeback Mountain on his tired shoulders.
After his first affectionate encounter, at no point in the film does Ennis Del Mar lack love, nor is his heart barren of loving potential. On the contrary, Ennis very much loves both of his lifelong partners. It is evident that Ennis deeply cares about his wife and the well-being of his family. And his love for Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) is irrefutable. The issue is that Ennis can’t accept love, or at least believes he can’t accept it, and so Ennis habitually fights love away.
Ennis never looks comfortable when he shares a frame with another person. It takes a full five minutes of film for Ennis to even look at Jack after the two are introduced and another two minutes before he can growl an introduction. From that point forward, Ennis is just as likely to address Jack as “Jack fucking Twist” as he is to use the un-decorated version of his lover’s name. With his wife Alma (Michelle Williams), Ennis is rarely standing on an even plane, even less likely to be framed face-to-face. He seems always to walk ahead or behind or separate from Alma and when the two move close, Ennis is always the one to turn from her, which, again, upon repeat viewings, begins to feel like an impulse driven not by sexual orientation, but by general social and emotional insecurity.
The violence of Ennis’ rejection of companionship might best be measured in the way that his sexual sessions, those with both his wife Alma and Jack, resemble physical altercations. His breath seethes angrily, his hands grip and push outward. When in the midst of heated intercourse, Ennis turns both of his partners so that their faces point toward the flat, bottom supporting surface, allowing him to enter from a particular angle, the easiest reading is that this position affords him the memory of Jack, whose anatomy limits the act to this position, but one could also perceive this as a move to de-personalize sex, to make it more an act of unavoidable biological release and less of an act of affectionate expression and closeness.
Ang Lee further establishes the link between conflict and sex in the patterned parallel arrangement of follow-up scenes. After his initial sexual experience with Jack, Ennis wakes in the morning and confusedly retreats into where he is comfortable. Lee arranges a series of shots that place Jack against an unbusied backdrop, framing him within a purgatory-like emptiness, detached, disconnected, and alone.
Later in the film, Ennis attends a fairgrounds firework show and sits with his family near two vulgar attendees. A physical altercation erupts and, after winning the fight, Ennis stands again within a similar backdrop of near nothingness, this time a solid black interrupted by the electric spark-like symbol of his rage.
In both the aforementioned moments, Ennis has completed a physical act driven by affection and passion for others, with his short fight a protective measure for his family dictated by yet another rule of masculinity. Both the movie and Ennis see each episode as one of the same, a struggle to stand alone. And this is how Ennis’s entire life unfolds. Because of the immediate cultural reaction to the progressively passive observation of its subjects, it’s easy to think of Brokeback Mountain as a movie about two lovers doomed and destroyed by an affection that blossoms in a world unwilling to accept it, but that is not entirely true.
In the film’s emotional climax, with years having passed since their first tryst and their mountainside Eden behind them, Jack and Ennis finally address their love in direct terms. Jack shouts at Ennis: “We could’a had a good life together! A fuckin’ real good life! Had us a place of our own. But you didn’t want it, Ennis!” Jack is right. The world around them may have never accepted them, but that world, at least in terms of societal inclusion, was never an issue for Ennis. In some ways, it is the very thing he is always trying to escape on his own. A comfortable, loving life for the two of them is attainable, and actually fits into the life plan that Ennis seems to seek, if he can just bring himself to accommodate one more person. But he cannot.
This dialogue exchange highlights the decade long under-riding tragedy that ultimately informs the film’s ultimate larger tragedy. The main obstacle that keeps Ennis and Jack apart for years is not the world’s violent rejection of their potential union, but rather Ennis’ involuntary denial of all unions, the same manly push for emotional isolation that destroys his heterosexual relationship. And the hardest part of this scene isn’t our discovery of this truth, but our witness of Ennis realizing the same thing simultaneously. When Jack ends his condemnation with the iconic line “I wish I knew how to quit you,” the moment is made exceptionally heartbreaking by Ennis’ response: “Well, why don’t you? Why don’t you just let me be? It’s because of you Jack, that I’m like this! I’m nothin’. I’m nowhere.” As he chokes on his own devastation, we see that Ennis believes that quitting one another is something that he and Jack are required to do, while the movie has insisted all along that this is not true.
Though he will likely be more remembered for the biting darkness in his turn as The Joker in the more commercially successful and broadly appealing The Dark Knight, Ledger etched the highest mark of his dramatic ability with Brokeback Mountain as the screen embodiment of confused masculinity’s lonely end game. His performance is perhaps only rivaled by the hollow infinity carried by Harry Dean Stanton in Paris, Texas. But to fully grasp Ang Lee’s cinematic expression of Ennis’ loneliness and his having attained it through archetypal emulation, it is necessary to investigate a more genre-specific comparison.
The two greatest personifications of the cowboy archetype in Western media, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, through the final shots of their watershed films, provide the two best single frame illustrations of the futility of the cowboy’s self-imposed loneliness. In John Ford’s 1956 The Searchers, we watch Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, a man destructively and stubbornly beholden to abandoned Confederate ideals, heading toward the empty horizon, framed in a figurative coffin, just before the door slams on him.
Then, in 1994’s Unforgiven, Eastwood’s Will Munny, who has learned that he can’t escape his own self-destructive and dangerous persona, has his entire life reduced to the walk between his small house and a tree-side grave, his personhood wiped out in the burning silhouette construct of the image. In both cases, the legendary Western actors are devalued and weighted with sadness by their postion with the horizon and the camera’s removal of their person-hood. It’s necessary to think of Ennis as living in a more modern world that is cognizant of and informed by iconic cowboy images and ideas like these, and this also helps enhance the lonely shot which Brokeback Mountain contributes to cinema’s pantheon of iconic sorrowful cowboy representations.
With Ennis psychologically ruined by his adopted masculine artifice, and Jack physically ruined by a more tangible manifestation of cultural masculinity, the former visits the latter’s childhood home and grieving parents. He is permitted alone time in Jack’s room, where he opens the closet to find the shirts the two of them wore on their first trip to Brokeback Mountain, hanging together like the skinned carcass of some hunted and killed animal. Just next to the hanger is a small photograph of the mountain, their shared Earthly paradise reduced to a 4″ x 8″ square. And next to that, a window showcases the stretching plains outside with the sun burning the horizon. With the camera behind him, and the viewer aligned with Ennis’ angled shoulders, we see through a shared straight line of perspective the remnants of the love that fell victim to Ennis’ cowboy rejection, the symbolic representation of his highest point of happiness, and the emptiness of the future he has chosen instead. It is a simple shot, but one that holds within it immeasurable damage, regret, and ruin. Ennis’ culpability in his own misery, in Jack’s death, and in the collapse of his family is impossible to deny, but so is our sympathy for the character’s very human sense of loss. So much so, that it’s hard not to think again of Ed and Patsy Bruce’s song: “He ain’t wrong, he’s just different but his pride won’t let him/Do things to make you think he’s right.“