Retrograde Storytelling or Queer Cinematic Triumph? the (Not So) Groundbreaking Qualities of the Film Brokeback Mountain

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The critical discourse surrounding the release and reception of Brokeback Mountain, based on the short story by Annie Proulx, has regularly positioned this film as a groundbreaking cinematic offering. But just how 'groundbreaking' is it really? "Why should such a competent but really quite ordinary film set off a stampede of accolades?" asks fine-arts scholar Richard Blake, quite insightfully, in his analysis of the work (21). Although the specifics of our arguments vary greatly, I nevertheless agree with Blake's conclusion that Brokeback Mountain's "content and lofty intentions might have created an illusion of more [groundbreaking] 'quality' than director Ang Lee and writers Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana actually put up on the screen" (21).

Without question, Brokeback Mountain is a film filled with intriguing characters, wonderful acting, and breathtaking scenery, one that achieved both critical and commercial success as it struck a chord among heterosexual and nonheterosexual audience members alike. At the same time, in virtually all regards it tells the story of being a nonheterosexual man in the same outdated, stereotypical ways as most other mainstream U.S. films to date, with the exception that it explicitly (rather than implicitly) addresses a complex sexual and romantic relationship between two cowboys trapped within the confines of a hypermasculine culture.

Brokeback Mountain is widely regarded as a faithful adaptation of its original source material (Rice 62); in fact, most of the film's most memorable lines of dialogue come directly from the pages of Proulx's short story. While arguably nothing has been lost in translation from the short story to the big screen, something has indeed been lost with the addition of a key sequence in the film that does not appear in the short story. In Proulx's writing, during their final moments together after Jack reveals "I wish I knew how to quit you" to Ennis, "Ennis stood as if heart-shot, face grey and deep-lined, grimacing, eyes screwed shut, fists clenched, legs caving, [and] hit the ground on his knees" (278). His reaction to these words--to the realization that Jack may have reached the point at which he is actually ready and willing to move on with his life entirely without Ennis--was so heartfelt and extreme that Jack thought Ennis might be having a heart attack. In the film, however, Ennis's reaction is remarkably different. "Then why don't you?" he fires back at Jack (played by Jake Gyllenhaal). Ennis (played by Heath Ledger) continues: "Why don't you just let me be, huh? It's because of you, Jack, that I'm like this. I'm nothin.' I'm nowhere." With these lines of dialogue, Ennis implies that Jack has turned him into a homosexual, invoking the same sorts of 'conversion fantasies' or 'conversion fears' that have been so common in films about nonheterosexual men throughout cinematic history and that have contributed, at least in part, to homophobia, harmful stereotypes, and influential social constructions of gay and bisexual men as individuals who must be feared, especially by influential young males who might otherwise go on to enjoy happy, fulfilling heterosexual lives. Once this retrograde representation appears in the film, it then efficiently serves to explain why, from their first sexual encounter onward, Ennis reacts somewhat aggressively whenever he is forced to confront the depths of his emotional and sexual investments in his ongoing relationship with Jack.

Another scene that has a differential impact in the short story as compared to the film is the one in which Lureen (played by Anne Hathaway) explains to Ennis the conditions that resulted in Jack's death: that he was pumping up a flat tire on a back road when it blew up, slamming the rim into Jack's face, which ended up breaking his nose and jaw and knocking him unconscious on his back, causing him to drown in his own blood. In the short story, it is clear to the reader that Ennis does not believe this series of events and envisions an alternate reality when Proulx writes, "No, he thought, they got him with the tire iron" (279), which suggests that Ennis believes Jack was instead murdered because he was gay. …