Two worthwhile perspectives on Brokeback Mountain:
Stephen Hunter sees the film very clearly:
… a movie is a collection of images, not just words. What is said is secondary to the imagery — images, in the hands of a skillful filmmaker, such as the great Lee (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is his most well-known, “Eat Drink Man Woman” his best), are ideas. They carry ideas. They issue proclamations. They lobby for policy.
And what do Lee’s images tell us?
It’s hard to argue that the movie constitutes any kind of threat, or pro-gay propaganda. For one thing, there’s too much authentic pain in it, it’s too bloody sad. The final image of the aloneness of the survivor is heartbreaking. He was never a crier, of course, but you know inside he’s sobbing. The film shows, convincingly, that love comes from the heart, not the glands, and if the heart is engaged, the body follows.
Yet it makes an argument with images craftily employed to communicate ideas. Nothing in it is arbitrary.
For example, one merely has to compare the visual motifs by which director Lee expresses homosexual life vs. heterosexual life.
Homosexuality in “Brokeback Mountain” is always associated with a river: It’s a great torrent of nature, which cannot be controlled and which provides sustenance, nurture, satisfaction, joy. The happiest image in the film, and the most poignant, is Ennis and Jack, off by their lonesome, pulling off their clothes and leaping off a cliff into the placid, welcoming waters below.
Realistically, it’s a river; metaphorically, it’s the great river of homosexuality, and safe and free immersion in it is utterly joyful to them. Indeed, most of the two men’s squabbling and (mostly off-camera) lovemaking takes place next to a river. It’s glimpsed in many of the backgrounds, usually a turmoil of frothing white water to signify the rush and power of their love and lust for each other. Sometimes it’s calming, it’s always there for them, and they suffer at their imposed distance from it.
Contrast that with the imagery of family and hearth. These venues are expressions of the impoverishment of the heterosexual family lifestyle. Ennis lives in a shabby apartment where he is regularly assailed by his doughy, clueless wife (Oscar-nominated Michelle Williams). His children squall and make demands that he cannot satisfy; his wife clings and resents; we are pressed to identify with him and feel the pain he feels and the yearning he aches with as he lurches out to the “purity” of the river.
The same is true for Jack. His family is equally dysfunctional, fronted by a bully and braggart of a father-in-law who sells farm equipment in Texas. His wife, Lurlene (Anne Hathaway), is first glimpsed as an impossibly pretty young rodeo rider, but after the marriage she ages gracelessly into a chain-smoking harridan with big blond hair and bad teeth.
Then there’s Ennis’s visit to Jack’s parents at the family homestead, which might be called “Ennis calls on Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic.’ ” Old Ang Lee is really laying it on thick here. The actor chosen to play Jack’s father (Peter McRobbie) certainly looks like Wood’s living cadavers — grim, wheezing skinhead, lacking only that pitchfork — and the house itself has the quality of skeleton to it: bare with unfinished wood, rotting in the sun. Again the visuals are overwhelming in their attitude: family life, home life, breeder life as a gestalt of impoverishment and stark, comfortless angularity. The old man cares less about his son’s life than his death; his one issue is that the boy’s ashes not be scattered on Brokeback Mountain, as Jack had wished, but that he be buried in the family plot, that he be hypocritically reclaimed for something called the name of decency.
In fact, generally, the movie is cruel to family. It seems to think family is a bourgeois delusion; Ennis’s poor daughter ends up in a gaudy Trans Am owned by her fiance, a harbinger of roughneck disaster to come. Jack’s boy is simply forgotten about; his ultimate pain — and it will be considerable — is not commented upon.
The movie also misses the deepest joy of family, which is that sense of connection to the great wheel of life. Giving birth to, educating and loving a kid are among the profound joys of human existence. “Brokeback Mountain” cannot begin to imagine such a thing; that reality simply is not on its radar, and if you looked at the story from another vantage — the children’s — it would be a different tale altogether: about greedy, selfish, undisciplined homosexuals who took out a contract in the heterosexual world, and abandoned it. They weren’t true men; they failed at the man’s one sacred duty on Earth, which is to provide.
And, insightful as usual, Peter Chattaway:
…it is even possible to think that Ennis became involved with Jack because he found himself becoming intimate with a friend, and he confused this with sexual intimacy. In some ways, their sexuality is implicitly tied to their adolescent desire to stay buddies and avoid growing up, and it is certainly tied to their irresponsible treatment of their families. The film particularly underscores how Ennis’s wife Alma (Michelle Williams) is traumatized when she discovers her husband’s affair and cannot find a way to get him to talk about it.