Fading in on a broad mountain-range, with a sliver of sunlight accenting its peaks, the first image is as still as a painting. Sharing an aesthetic quality like American luminist paintings of the mid-nineteenth century, the dramatic lighting draws viewer’s attention to nature’s striking beauty in its purest form. It is impossible to ignore the unique majesty of the American West featured in this opening shot. The title fades as a vehicle penetrates the aforementioned oil painting from the very bottom right corner of the frame, breaking the ahistorical fantasy and grounding it in a modern rural America. As the sun rises, following the semi-truck to a stop, the camera cuts to a close up of the front of the truck. Nature’s raw beauty is nowhere to be found, but dominating the screen—and the implied world around it—is the brutalist ephemera of post-industrial living. As the faceless passenger exits his hitched ride, he ambles over to a stoop outside a trailer, flanking an empty parking lot. Asphalt—manufactured and repurposed stone—has replaced the rustic charm of the film’s first frame. A title appears on the screen:
Finally, giving us a specific time and place, Brokeback Mountain begins, long after the end of the imagined “Wild West.” Cowboys and Indians has gone from fantasy to myth, to Topps trading card and HASBRO game night.
We see Ennis Del Ray (Heath Ledger) as he’s approaching adulthood; he’s grown up in stark contrast to time’s mercilessly unwavering progression. The Marlboro Man belongs on his ranch, not a parking lot. He is the (literally) spitting image of the contemporary cowboy; raw and natural, yet forced to conform to the arbitrary structures of modern America. In order to drive cattle to make a living, he has to ride in a car, to get to an office, to sign a contract. Physically embodying this contradictory existence, Del Ray projection of patience is met in equal measure by his physical restlessness, stemming from his psychological turmoil. Waiting in the parking lot, Del Ray leans against the building’s exterior wall with his large-brimmed hat obscuring his visage and one heel of his boot nervously digging into the toe of the other. Underneath his stoic exterior Del Ray harbors an oil well of emotions, which continues to fill over time. As he comes of age, Del Ray’s effort to hide himself offer no release until he’s met by a match, exploding, unable to suppress who he really is any longer.
Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrives with a huff, slamming his pickup in park and kicking its tire after jumping out of the cab. His grandiose, compensatory performance of masculine rage ends abruptly as he looks over Del Ray from beneath the brim of his hat. Del Ray rejects Twist’s ocular advances, recalibrating his own gaze further inward—his eyes have to land somewhere, and any place not belonging to himself is unknown and uncomfortable. As Twist feigns relenting, he slowly turns around, allowing Del Ray to examine him on his own terms, which Del Ray does, coyly. As Twist turns back around to face Del Ray, one hand on his hip and one on his truck, staring straight back at Del Ray, then looking down. Cleverly, Lee includes an insert of Twist’s driver-side mirror showing Del Ray, indicating Twist’s discrete transfixion. In only a few minutes, Ang Lee elegantly and clearly establishes both the world the principals exist and their terms of engagement between them without relying on a single word of exposition. This abbreviated non-verbal exchange defines the pattern of the next twenty years of their relationship as depicted in the film: Twist attempts to draw out Del Ray, which he outwardly rejects despite a suppressed urge to meet Twist in the middle. Though Twist’s able to occasionally catalyze Del Ray’s allowance to be himself, their relationship is never able to expand beyond their private haven of Wyoming’s Brokeback Mountain.
Brokeback Mountain devotes the first third of its runtime to this initial encounter, before racing through each subsequent mutual encounter or development in their respective lives. It is that first meeting, and subsequent sheep drive, that lays the foundation for the remainder of their days together. In Brokeback Mountain, overt exposition is supplanted by restrained, quiet, and clear direction—telling an emotionally potent story with as few words as possible. Ang Lee utilizes undeniably gorgeous inserts of “Wyoming’s” mountain ranges (the film was actually shot in Canada), but never for more than a few seconds. These shots quickly ground the film’s sense of place and move right along. These shots give us a tangible sense of awe that must come from being in the physical presence of these mountains.Lee quickly escapes without distracting from the dramatic thrust of the film or coming across as masturbatory—something so many other filmmakers would do; falling in love with their own work to the detriment of the film. Placing the inception of Twist and Del Ray’s connection in a detail-perfect depiction of nature’s vast beauty not only grounds the plot in a fully realized world larger than the film itself, but makes an implicitly political argument about the film’s opinion of their relationship. Without coming across as pandering or heavy-handed, this visual linkage between their relationship and the wild makes the argument clear without needing to state the obvious: their love is natural, and it is society’s unnatural impositions that needlessly complicates their bond.
As the film goes on, the duo’s relationship to the wild also changes. As they assume normatively domestic masculine identities with all of the expected acquisitions—kids, wives, in-laws, etc.—their literal baggage increases with each trip to Brokeback. Twist’s existential torment comes from his inability to acquiesce to society’s expectations of a Modern Man, surrounded by a world that is constantly rejecting him. Del Ray’s pain, though similar, comes from his internalization of these expectations and subsequent self-tyranny. Del Ray projects an image that society can easily digest, but it tears him up inside to do so. Del Ray’s life is particularly weighed down by his self-oppressive mentality, and his truck bed becomes a physical manifestation of this weight. With each trip, his physical and emotional loads increase. Del Ray enters the picture with a fiancé and vehicle-less, but over time adds a wife, two daughters, a pickup truck, and eventually a fully-loaded utility rack. These accoutrements edify his his normalized persona, but weigh down his true self. One of the few occasions we see Del Ray exhibit unfettered joy in the latter half of the film is a scene where he skinny dips in a river with Twist, literally shedding their external artifices to embody their most natural, truest selves.
Lee uses the first few minutes to lay down an emotional framework for Del Ray and Twist’s relationship to be built upon, and then employs dense visual storytelling to explicate time’s attrition on their pure enjoyment of each other without ever lazily resorting to obvious exposition. Their physical relationship to their external worlds perfectly explains who they are to the audience. Both Del Ray and Twist exist in uncomfortable realities due to their inability to simply be themselves, whether it is society or their own ideas of who they should be that are in their way. When they are together, Twist is able to ignite Del Ray’s passions, relieving him of his self-flagellating mindset and becoming the place of acceptance that Twist has been unable to find elsewhere. However, their symbiosis is fleeting, as time erodes what was left of their youth, optimism, and life, they are never able to experience the magic they find together in the mountains of Wyoming for more than a few days at a time, or transport it back into a world that has no room for men like them. Though Twist dies for trying, at the hands of murderous bigots, Del Ray never even gave himself a chance to live free.