The wide open closet

Note to readers: This post contains spoilers for those of you who have not seen either Brokeback Mountain or Weekend. What I want to say about Brokeback Mountain, in particular, is impossible to say without discussing its final scenes, so if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to know how it ends, don’t go any further (yet).

Brokeback Mountain (2005) directed by Ang Lee
Brokeback Mountain (2005) directed by Ang Lee

Matthew Shepard was murdered in 1998 when I was in my first year of research for my doctoral thesis.

What I was doing when he was killed is really immaterial except that I was spending long days in the university library reading about dominant forms of masculinity in American culture and the often violent ways they reassert themselves when under threat. Shepard’s story, unfolding as my PhD did, was bringing it all to life for me. His story helped me, but I’m sorry it did.

Matthew Shepard was only 21 when he was beaten and tortured and left to die on the side of a road in Laramie, Wyoming, on the night of October 6-7.

Matthew Shepard (1976-1998)
Matthew Shepard (1976-1998)

Shepard met his attackers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, at the Fireside Lounge shortly before midnight. Accounts suggest that McKinney and Henderson pretended to be gay in order to earn Shepard’s trust and lure him into their truck. Shepard had a slight, fragile build and must have appeared an easy target. McKinney’s girlfriend later testified to the men’s charade and their specific attention on Shepard when he first entered the bar.

The chronology of events revealed at trial is disturbing. At some point in the evening, McKinney and Henderson offered to give Shepard a ride home. But they didn’t. Instead, they drove to a remote area where they proceeded to rob, beat and pistol-whip him. While their original intentions may have been just to rob him, the opportunity to ‘punish’ him in other ways seems to have been irresistible. When Shepard’s body could take no more, McKinney and Henderson tied him to a fence and left him, bleeding and cold and barely breathing, to die. His head was fractured, his brainstem damaged, his face and neck seriously lacerated. It was reported that his face was completely covered with blood except where it had been washed clean by his own tears.

Even more excruciating than this account are McKinney and Henderson’s attempts during the trial to justify their actions. While they admitted to wanting to rob Shepard, they claimed the murder was not premeditated but had occurred because they panicked. About what? Originally pleading the ridiculous ‘gay panic defence’ their attorney argued that McKinney and Henderson were driven to temporary insanity by Shepard’s sexual advances. In the public space of the bar, it was Shepard’s responsibility as a gay man to police himself and make himself less visible, less threatening. And that because he hadn’t they couldn’t be held accountable for the ferocity of their response as they went about correcting his mistake.

I find it difficult, even now, to think about all this. To think about how McKinney and Henderson left Matthew Shepard alone in the black of night, tied ‘Christ-like’, as some described it, to a fence cutting across the flat Wyoming prairie, so that he resembled a scarecrow when a passer-by found him the following morning. (He remained unconscious, on full life support, before he was pronounced dead on October 12 in a Colorado hospital.) And while this is only one of many senseless hate crimes, there is something particularly difficult to stomach about Shepard’s death.

Perhaps what lingers for me all these years later is the provocative nature of its imagery – tangled up as it is with ideas about the American West – its wide open spaces and the kinds of men it produces.

The wide open landscape in which Shepard was beaten and left to die
The wide open landscape in which Shepard was beaten and left to die

The American West offers us both a mythology and iconography of masculinity – white, straight, strong, silent. The American West’s male archetype, the cowboy, lives in a vast, unforgiving landscape, a landscape that erects strict boundaries between proper masculinity and its ‘deviant’ other.

In narratives about gay men’s lives – both real and imagined in film – space and spatial borders play an important role. And the binary oppositions most often associated with the heterosexual/homosexual divide – outside/inside, public/private and visible/invisible – are really interesting ways to talk about these spaces.

Visually and emotionally, I can’t help connecting Matthew Shepard’s story to Ang Lee’s exquisite film, Brokeback Mountain (2005).

Based quite flawlessly on the Annie Proulx story of the same name, the advertising tagline for Lee’s films suggests that ‘love is a force of nature.’ It opens with a wide shot of the prairie at dawn. A truck cuts a line across the horizon. A mountain rises behind it. It’s a shot that immediately sets up something important about the landscape in which this story will be played out. It’s a scene that establishes the role that these spaces play in shaping identity and relationships, a sense of belonging or isolation.

One of the posters for Brokeback Mountain, that positions the men before the landscape
One of the posters for Brokeback Mountain that positions the men before the landscape

It’s 1963, Signal, Wyoming. A truck drops Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) off at a makeshift office. Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) is also waiting there. They are both seeking work up on Brokeback Mountain for the summer, tending to a herd of sheep. They are not quite twenty years old.

Inside, the two young men are ‘interviewed’ by the gruff Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid). Ennis and Jack seem uncomfortable around each other; Ennis more so, even uneasy in his own skin. Lee positions them at a distance from each other within the frame – they don’t utter a word and we can’t help but wonder how they’ll actually get along up on the mountain for an entire summer.

Heath Ledger as Ennis Del Mar
Heath Ledger as Ennis Del Mar
Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack Twist
Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack Twist

Outside, Jack makes the first move and introduces himself. Jack will prove to be the more open and talkative of the pair; Ennis closed, private, a tougher nut to crack.

The actors – Ledger and Gyllenhaal – travel a vast emotional terrain throughout this film. Here, as we are first introduced to them, they begin to build their complementary characters. Ledger conveys Ennis’ bruised inarticulateness with his entire body, a sense of discomfort, of being closed off and shut down. But his vulnerability is never far from the surface of tough masculinity he cultivates. Later, this will reveal itself as the secret that tortures him and under whose weight his body crumbles further.

Gyllenhaal is more confident, charming, but no less vulnerable. There is a spark for him here in their first meeting and even if he doesn’t know what to name it it’s there in his eyes.

In these early scenes, Lee is already playing with space – insides and outsides, public and private spaces. And it’s up on the mountain itself that Lee expands the relationship between intimacy and space further.

Jack and Ennis, alone outside
Jack and Ennis, alone together outside
Dwarfed by the landscape and hidden in this open space
Dwarfed by the landscape, Ennis and Jack believe they are hidden in this open space

The mountain landscape is presented as beautiful, tranquil and idyllic. It’s a private space, for no one but Ennis, Jack and the sheep. A routine develops and Ennis starts to talk a bit more. For all its beauty, it’s a lonely landscape, and each man craves connection. Lee masterfully and subtly shows this one night when Jack smokes alone in the dark and looks down the mountain to see the burning light from Ennis’ camp. This longing is mirrored when Ennis, washing dishes in the river, looks up the mountain at Jack working.

The routine continues. And then something changes. We know something’s going on with Ennis when he orders ‘soup’ for their provisions, despite hating it, cause Jack has said ‘no more beans’ and then heads up the mountain to be with him. But a bear spooks the horses and thwarts his attempt to connect. He falls and the horses take off with the provisions and when Jack heads down for supper that evening and finds Ennis gone, he’s hungry and fuming. I’ve always found it interesting that when Ennis finally reappears he doesn’t explain to Jack why he left camp or that he was coming to join him. Ennis isn’t ready to open up yet and so the routine continues.

Jack and Ennis get closer around the campfire
Jack and Ennis get closer around the campfire

There’s not a lot of dialogue in these early scenes, even when the men are together. Ennis is not a talker; he struggles with words, with expressing who he is and what he feels. Luckily, there are other ways to communicate. One night, not long after, they get drunk. Ennis is too drunk to head back to his camp. Jack tells him to come sleep inside the tent with him, but Ennis stays outside, passing out in front of the campfire. Later, when the fire dies, Ennis, freezing, accepts Jack’s invitation. And at some point in the night Jack reaches for Ennis’ arm and wraps it around him.

At first Ennis reacts with violent confusion, pulling away. Jack undresses and tries to kiss him. Ennis continues to pull away, but then takes the lead and the men have sex. It’s fast, furious and intense. In the morning Ennis takes off without breakfast and without saying a word. But in the evening the men make their positions clear. Ennis says, ‘This is a one shot thing we got going on here.’ Jack defends this and their privacy saying, ‘It’s nobody’s business but ours.’ Each man is then quick to point out that they ‘ain’t queer.’ This is an important conversation. Lee sets it up so they sit at a distance from each other, at the forefront of a shot that locates them within the landscape, already conscious of the space between their public and private selves, a space they will constantly be negotiating.

A new routine begins. And while Ennis and Jack ‘ain’t queer’, inside the private safety of their tent they continue to sleep together and explore a new identity and a new way of being men in this landscape.

But this new relationship is not as private as they think. One morning, as they fool around with their shirts off, Aguirre watches through binoculars. He might be legitimately checking on his employees, but it’s easy to see that he functions as a social regulator, policing the borders and boundaries of ‘normal’ behaviour. And what he sees, of course, in the America of the 1960s, in a particular landscape where men are expected to behave in very specific ways, is not considered ‘normal’. While Ennis and Jack think they are in a private space and that what they do is nobodies business but their own, they are wrong. The outside world is closing in. When I first saw this scene I remember feeling suddenly very nervous for them. Later, I connected Aguirre’s surveillance to the policing of borders I think underpinned the endless Brokeback jokes and parodies on late night TV. Given that the film was released in the middle of George W. Bush’s second term, rampant with hysteria over the perceived threat presented to ‘traditional family values’ by gay marriage and the homophobic rhetoric this produced, this was really no laughing matter.

Later Aguirre informs them that there’s a bad storm coming and it’s time to bring the sheep back down. The idyllic summer on the mountain has come to an end.

The sequence that follows is beautifully realized. Ennis is angry – he says it’s about losing a whole month’s pay, but we guess it’s something more. As Jack packs up camp, Ennis sits alone, at a distance. It’s a gorgeous shot – Ennis contained within a verdant expanse of grass with the trees and mountains extending infinite behind him. The landscape absorbing his unhappiness. Jack, more open and thoughtful, gazes out at him and decides to approach. He lassoes his lover and grabs him by the feet. But what starts off as playful ends in a fight. Ennis gets a bloody nose (and blood all over his shirt) and when Jack tries to comfort him his own shirt gets bloodied and he’s pushed away. Both are wounded as they head up the mountain to bring the sheep down. The scene is intensely physical and for Ennis in particular, so closed off that he struggles to speak, his body is his primary mode of expression.

Ennis is withdrawn and closed off, unable to express what he's really feeling
Ennis is withdrawn and closed off, unable to express what he’s really feeling

What’s interesting to me after a lifetime spent watching romantic dramas featuring straight protagonists is how intimacy is redefined here. And while it’s true, for straight and gay, that love means our view of the world narrows on the object of our affection, for Ennis and Jack, their connection opens space, and in turn, the world, up for them. Lee offers this in the vast horizon against which he frames them and the open spaces in which they grow ever closer. The mountains are immense. Within that expanse Ennis and Jack create a private space that is theirs alone, that hides them from an outside world that doesn’t seem to have a place for them; a truly Western landscape that promises freedom from social restraints. And it is important that it has the potential to do this for Ennis and Jack who are constantly conscious of where they are, who can see them and what price they might pay for being public, outside and visible.

This culmination to the first quarter of the film is poignant. It feels like something magical that has opened for Ennis and Jack is coming to a sudden and uncontrollable close. Ennis says he’s marrying Alma (Michelle Williams) but Jack says he might be back next summer (hope and desire existing side by side in Gyllenhaal’s huge, soulful eyes). The shock of space closing in is clear in the reticence of their goodbye, as Jack drives off watching Ennis walk away, becoming a smudge in his side mirror. But most violently, the trauma of their parting is clear when Ennis steps into an alley, throws up and angrily punches the wall. Something more than vomit and tears threatens to spill out of Ennis and become visible. And crumpled into a heap he cries for something he doesn’t have the words to name.

It remains unspoken at the end of the summer when each man moves on to lives that don’t involve the other. Ennis marries Alma and becomes a father to two girls. Jack marries Lureen (Anne Hathaway) after the following summer when he visits Aguirre and is told there’s no work for ‘his kind’ and that Ennis hasn’t been around. Life, it seems, goes on. In this environment, it has to.

Four years later Ennis receives a postcard picturing Brokeback Mountain. It’s from Jack. He’s passing through town and wants to see his old friend. Ledger is exceptional in this scene – a smile creeping, faintly, across his face as he explains to Alma that Jack is an old ‘fishing buddy’. Ennis heads straight to the post-office and sends a simple note, just two words, ‘You bet.’

Their reunion is a revelation. Ennis and Jack occupy space quite differently, especially in the film’s first quarter, where Ennis is constantly fighting himself. When he kisses and holds Jack it’s often with a ferocity that suggests an internal battle. But here, the ferocity is different. It suggests desire in the most explicit terms. He nervously paces and drinks beer waiting for Jack to arrive. When he finally does we see the first genuine smile of the whole film fill Ennis’ face. He flies down the stairs and their bodies collide. Ennis abandons himself to the moment. But he’s conscious that they are outside, as thrilling as this must be for him, and pushes them into the cover of a corner. As they kiss he occasionally pulls away to make sure no one can see them. There’s no dialogue, but with performances this good, it’s really not needed. Everything is there in their faces. The scene is all the more extraordinary when paired with the complete lack of contact between them when they last said goodbye.

After four years Jack and Ennis are reunited
After four years Jack and Ennis are reunited
The intensity of their reunion kiss
The intensity of their reunion kiss

But despite their increased comfort in a public open space, there is still danger outside. Of course someone is watching. Their secret now visible to Alma, who walks to the door and sees them, and then mortified, closes it and disappears back inside. Ennis makes excuses why he probably won’t be home and the men disappear into a private space.

Alma sees the truth about Ennis and Jack
Alma (Michelle Williams) sees the truth about Ennis and Jack

Lee cuts to an exterior shot of a motel, somewhere in the darkness on the edge of town, and then inside, to where Ennis lies in Jack’s arms, comfortably, happily, smoking cigarettes and talking. They wonder what they’ll do now. Ennis concludes, ‘I doubt there’s nothing we can do,’ that he’s stuck with what he has and that all he has time to worry about is making a living. The next day they head up to the mountain to fish for a few days.

In a culture that values hardness, rivalry and violence between men, a scene like this – two men lying in a bed together talking – filled with quiet intimacy and tenderness, an ease and gentleness between their bodies, could just be the most shocking sight in the movies. It’s a scene that pushes the envelope in the best possible way.

Is this the most 'shocking' sight in American movies?
Is this really the most ‘shocking’ sight in American movies?

Gay men talking in bed is also a feature of the recent, brilliant British film, Weekend (2011), written, directed and edited by Andrew Haigh. Haigh’s film is filled with private moments in public spaces as well as extremely private moments in private spaces. Here gay men are both inside and outside; both visible and hidden.

Glen (Chris New) and Russell (Tom Cullen) talking about the night before the morning after in Andrew Haigh's Weekend (2011)
Glen (Chris New) and Russell (Tom Cullen) talking about the night before the morning after in Andrew Haigh’s Weekend (2011)

Set in contemporary England, the space between two people is explored in Weekend the morning after what we think will be a one-night stand. It’s an ordinary beginning to what will be an extraordinary 48 hours. Drinking coffee in bed together, Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glen (Chris New), talk about the night before. Glen explains that he’s doing an ‘art project’ and claims he only slept with Russell so he could ask him to participate. He asks Russell to talk about last night so he can record it. Russell reveals that he thought Glen was out of his league. As they continue talking, inside the apartment, in the privacy of Russell’s bedroom, we hear a man outside calling someone queer. It’s a shrill reminder of the threat lurking just outside their door.

The men react to this ‘attack’ in different ways that tell us a lot about how they negotiate space. Glen is angry and runs to the window yelling that the man leave whoever he is harassing alone. But Russell’s nervous and instructs him to just ‘close the window.’ In this little moment we have a neat encapsulation of their characters. Glen, bombastic, open and fearless; Russell, quiet, anxious and reticent. Glen public, Russell private. Glen outside, Russell in.

Weekend opens with a panoramic scene of the city, Nottingham, outside Russell’s window. To accentuate Russell’s feeling that he is always being watched (by neighbours, by friends) there is also a surveillance camera outside on the lawn of his block of flats.

Haigh’s camera then quickly cuts to the interior of his apartment where he sits smoking pot, nervously preparing to enter the world outside his window. It’s Friday night. Russell goes to dinner at his friend Jamie’s house. Jamie’s straight, so are all the other guests. They’re all paired up. We don’t have any reason to believe Russell isn’t straight too at this stage except that he’s alone. He leaves telling Jamie that he’s knackered, stoned and has to work the next day. When Russell heads to the gay club where he will meet Glen (who initially ignores him) Haigh hasn’t provided any explicit ‘clues’ about his real identity – he’s simply positioned as an outsider, at Jamie’s dinner party and also at the club.

Later in the film and into the weekend, after a long night spent drinking, lines of coke, talking and eventually sleeping together again (in one of the most honest, tender and uncompromising sex scenes, gay or straight, I’ve ever seen), they keep the inevitable dawn (Glen is leaving for art school in Portland the following day) at bay, talking. The intimacy here is striking, as it has been throughout the film. Talking into the early hours of the morning Russell reveals, ‘When I’m at home I’m absolutely fine, I don’t care and I don’t even think about it … It’s when I go outside … it actually feels exactly like indigestion.’ Russell knows who he is but doesn’t know how to be it. He experiences himself as if split in two, at ease behind closed doors but unprotected and uncomfortable outside on the street.

Inside the safety of the apartment, Russell and Glen talk and fall in love
Inside the safety of the apartment, Russell and Glen talk and fall in love

Haigh’s story is acutely aware of the daily negotiation of space required by many gay men. For Russell, in particular, less comfortable in his own skin and anywhere outside his own apartment than Glen, his desperate need to connect is balanced throughout with his fear of being visible. But in the safety of his bed and Glen’s arms he can finally open up and Glen encourages this by giving him the chance to finally ‘come out’ since he never had the chance to do this with his own father (Russell is an orphan).

One of many tender moments in Weekend, talking to keep the dawn at bay
One of many tender moments in Weekend, talking to keep the dawn at bay

There’s nothing cheap about the sex or the representation of a nascent relationship in Weekend. Indeed, I think Haigh is deconstructing audience expectation of a gay narrative with this film. When Glen bemoans that no one will come to see his art project, he pulls the audience’s expectations apart:

‘The problem is that no one is going to come and see it because it’s about gay sex. So the gays will only come cause they want a glimpse of a cock and they’ll be disappointed. And the straights won’t come, because, well, it’s got nothing to do with their world. They’ll go and see pictures of refugees or murder or rape, but gay sex? Fuck off.’

Inside and outside spaces are carefully negotiated in Weekend
Inside and outside spaces are carefully negotiated in Weekend

What straight people can cope with in public spaces is further explored at Glen’s farewell drinks when he argues with a man who has taken umbrage with the ‘loud’ noise he is making. Glen has been recounting a story to his friends about a sexual encounter with a leather-clad man. When the straight man asks Glen to keep it down, Glen points out that it wasn’t the noise that was bothering him but that there were so many gay men visible in this bar. Back at Russell’s apartment, Glen goes further, saying that straight people like them as long as they conform and behave by their rules. They don’t want it shoved down their throats; the proper borders need to be maintained. Russell suggests that maybe shoving it down their throats is a problem. But Glen says they should

‘Because they shove it down our throats all the time, being straight – straight story lines on television, everywhere, in books, on billboards, magazines, everywhere. But oh, the gays, the gays, we mustn’t upset the straights! Shh, watch out the straights are coming. Let’s not upset them, let’s hide in our little ghettos, let’s not hold hands, let’s not kiss in the street, no.’

But Glen’s being out isn’t only a problem for straights. It’s also a problem for Russell. He wants to kiss Glen at the bar but says he can’t do it here, outside, in public. And that’s why this film’s finale is so special. Haigh allows the lovers to share a tender moment in a public space before sending Glen out into the big, wide world. It’s not without humour. When they walk out onto the train platform together Glen asks, ‘So this is our Notting Hill moment?’ Neither has seen the film, but Glen imagines that there is a ‘declaration of love and everybody applauds.’ Russell wonders if this is what will happen with them. Glen says it might, they could give it a go, ‘They’d either clap or throw us under a train.’

Out in the open, Glen and Russell share a tearful goodbye
Out in the open, Glen and Russell share a tearful goodbye

But as it has done throughout, Weekend subverts our expectations of how love stories end. Russell and Glen step outside into the open space of the train platform. Haigh shoots from a distance – we are positioned with the camera to watch them from behind a wire fence. There’s a lot of diegetic noise and we can’t hear what they’re saying. A couple of teenagers look on and shake their heads. Russell is talking as we hear a woman over the PA making an announcement about CCTV. They’re being watched and we hear Russell say that he isn’t going to stop Glen from going but that he wants Glen to know. Glen waves his hands; he doesn’t want to hear it, knows what’s coming. As the camera moves in closer we see he’s upset and crying. Space closes in as Russell takes Glen in his arms and holds him trying to reassure him that he’s made the right decision.

The camera moves in even closer reducing the world down to the two of them as they kiss in the open, public space, visible to everyone around them – the CCTV, the disparaging teens (who wolf whistle and yell out ‘fucking gay boys’) and us.

Ultimately, in Weekend as in Brokeback Mountain, the space that matters most is the space between who someone is and who they want to be. And whether it’s 1963 or 2011, this remains difficult territory to resolve. In the process, opportunities are lost and lives fall short of what they should be. At the end of the weekend, Glen leaves, his heart broken, and Russell stays – his heart no less shattered. He’s left standing at the open window of his apartment, closing it and moving back inside. Russell’s tiptoed outside with Glen holding his hand. Where does Glen’s absence leave him?

In Brokeback Mountain, time and space are a curse for Ennis and Jack, who end up with a relationship spanning nearly two decades essentially made up of ‘fishing trips’ two or three times a year. At no point during this time are they able to reconcile the space between who they are privately and who they want to be publicly.

When Ennis and Jack return to Brokeback for the first time after their passionate reunion, Jack dares to imagine a life for them, open, visible and public, a life in which they can be together, happy. He imagines them with their own small ranch, but Ennis can’t, as he says, ‘I told you, it ain’t going to be that way.’ Jack rightly identifies that neither of them is living a full life and that getting together once in a while is unsatisfactory.

Obviously, what I’m talking about here, without naming it, is the most complex of the inside/outside paradigms, the idea of the closet used to explain the hiding of one’s sexual identity from the outside world in a symbolic enclosed space.

In Brokeback Mountain the closet complicates the wide, open spaces in which Ennis and Jack fall in love. And while the space afforded by the mountain is an open, public space, an argument can be made that the closet is actually all around them – in the expanse of the American prairie.

The closet is not only a private, self-imposed space in which to hide. It’s also an embodied set of rules and regulations by which a life might be lived, or rather, half-lived. It’s a mechanism for surveillance – other people watch and you monitor your behaviour accordingly, to stay hidden even when outside. It sets up a punishing social order that rots you from the inside out as you ingest what external forces tell you is the ‘normal’ way to be and modify yourself accordingly. It manifests in self-policing to the point where you make yourself invisible just to stay alive.

The mountain offers Ennis and Jack a space that is both open and closed. In Brokeback Mountain the closet moves outside, and strangely, is all the more constricting for it.

Even when they're alone together, the closet is all around them
Even when they’re alone together in this wide open space, the closet is all around Jack and Ennis

While Jack tries to imagine them being ‘just like this, always,’ Ennis is conscious that being visible is fraught with danger. As he tells Jack, ‘We’re around each other again and this thing grabs hold of us again, in the wrong place and the wrong time. We’re dead.’ And to some extent, as doomed as this is, he’s right. But there’s also an argument to be made that if Ennis and Jack are apart they might as well be dead. That the further they step inside the closet, the tighter the noose becomes.

Here in Wyoming, in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, in a space where masculinity fits into only one very narrow mould, there is no community that can conceal or support them, nowhere to hide, nowhere Ennis and Jack can live a real life together. And while it’s not enough for Jack, Ennis resolves that ‘If you can’t fix it … you’ve got to stand it.’ There is a price to pay (invisibility, loneliness, death) and he knows it.

As Ennis’s marriage to Alma falls apart, Jack clings to the hope that they can be together, but as the years pass, this dream is repeatedly frustrated. He escapes to Mexico and the arms of male prostitutes. Later, reunited on the mountain, Ennis wonders if Lureen ever suspects, wonders if Jack ever feels like someone looks at him and see the truth. Even while they are under surveillance, something resembling life goes on. Ennis meets another woman; Jack has affairs with other men.

Another year, back up the mountain, Jack confesses, ‘sometimes I miss you so much I can hardly stand it.’ There’s nothing tawdry or sentimental in Gyllenhaal’s delivery here. It’s raw and heartfelt and overwhelming in its honesty. He’s never been better. But Ennis says nothing. The next morning he confesses that he might not be able to make it to Brokeback again until November. Jack’s angry; he was expecting to see him sooner. He laments that they never have enough time, that ‘this is a godamned bitch of an unsatisfactory situation.’ And when Ennis says that he’d kill him if he knew the details of what went on in Mexico, what Jack has relinquished becomes clear:

‘We could’ve had a good life together … had us a place of our own. But you didn’t want it Ennis. So what we got now is Brokeback Mountain … Everything’s built on that, that’s all we got. You count the damn few times we have been together in nearly twenty years and you measure the short fucking leash you keep me on and then you ask me about Mexico and tell me you’ll kill me for needing something I don’t hardly never get. You have no idea how bad it gets. I’m not you.’

Unsatisfied with the limits imposed on them by the closet, Ennis and Jack argue
Unhappy about the limits imposed on them by the closet, Ennis and Jack argue
Jack rages about his unsatisfactory life as Ennis shuts down
Jack rages about his unsatisfactory life as Ennis shuts down

Jack rages and at this point Lee focuses his camera, close-up, on the back of Ennis’ head. He does know how bad it gets he just doesn’t have the words to say it. And when Jack utters the film’s most quoted (and mocked) line, ‘I wish I knew how to quit you,’ Ennis turns and reveals tears and his own quiet, desperation: ‘It’s because of you that I’m like this. I’m nothing. I’m nowhere … I just can’t stand this anymore.’ Peter Travers writes that Ledger ‘seems to tear it from his insides … [he] doesn’t just know how Ennis moves, speaks and listens; he knows how he breathes.’ And as he crumbles here, struggling for words, Ledger shows us just how much Ennis is a man crippled by the rules of a society he wants out of but doesn’t know how to leave.

Which brings me back to the idea of the closet. It kills, both completely and by degree, little by little every day. The closet forces Ennis and Jack to forge lives around what is tolerated by others. And while they love each other, their love, always a secret, can only ever be half-expressed and therefore only half-experienced. The life they have lived, together and apart, has existed precariously in that space between what they can and can’t stand.

Two closets feature in the film’s moving final scenes. One of these closets is Jack’s; the other belongs to Ennis. I think each closet contains the same thing.

As he tries to set up their next ‘fishing trip,’ Ennis learns that Jack has died. Speaking to Lureen about Jack’s accident pumping up a flat tyre, Ennis sees it differently, sees a group of men setting upon Jack and beating him to death. Lee stages this image in the middle of an expanse of land that bears an eerie resemblance to the landscape where Matthew Shepard spent his final hours. This has always been Ennis’ fear – related to a story he recounts from his youth of two men who were tortured and killed for living together. He has seen what happens when you ‘come out,’ the price to be paid by the closet and the homophobia banging at its door.

Jack wanted his ashes scattered on Brokeback Mountain. Lureen thinks this is ‘some pretend place where bluebirds sing and there’s a whisky spring,’ and suggests Ennis visits Jack’s parents to carry out this wish. When Ennis tells them, ‘I feel awful bad about Jack, I can’t even begin to tell you how bad I feel,’ we know this is true, know that there are things he can’t tell anyone. Mrs Twist invites Ennis to go up to Jack’s room which she has left as it was when he was a boy.

Ennis ascends the stairs. In Jack’s room, with tears in his eyes, he opens a window and sits down. Lee’s camera is now positioned on the open closet. Ennis looks in, like he’s looking right inside Jack. He touches Jack’s clothes, his boots. And then he sees it, hidden between the closet and the wall, his bloodied shirt from their first summer on Brokeback, the shirt he thought he had lost, hanging under Jack’s own bloodied shirt. Inside Jack’s closet, Ennis holds the shirts to him, breathes them in, considering what he’s lost. And this realisation shakes him to his core. Ledger does something very special here. There’s no anger – in this private space he just surrenders to the sadness, to the loss, and his feelings are palpable. Ennis leaves the Twist house with the shirts. Jack’s mother gets a bag for him to put them in, as if she knows what they mean and knew he would find them. She can see him, maybe she knows, and it’s not so bad. So much has been said without words.

In Jack's closet Ennis discovers the shirts and the truth about how he feels
In Jack’s closet Ennis discovers the shirts and the truth about how he feels

In her story, Proulx describes the discovery of the shirts in the closet with her near-perfect prose:

‘The shirt seemed heavy until he saw there was another shirt inside it, the sleeves carefully worked down inside Jack’s sleeves. It was his own plaid shirt, lost, he’d thought … stolen by Jack and hidden there inside Jack’s own shirt, the pair like two skins, one inside the other, two in one. He pressed his face into the fabric and breathed in slowly through his mouth and nose, hoping for the faintest smoke and mountain sage and salty sweet stink of Jack but there was no real scent, only the memory of it, the imagined power of Brokeback Mountain of which nothing was left but what he held in his hands.’

Brokeback Mountain literally ends with a closet.

After a visit from Alma Jr (Kata Mara) announcing her engagement, Ennis folds her forgotten sweater and opens his closet to put it away. Hanging on the inside door are the shirts – his shirt now covering and protecting Jack’s – alongside a postcard of Brokeback Mountain. The closet transformed into a shrine of remembrance; a reproduction of what is really in his heart. Through his tears and silent cry, all Ennis can say is ‘Jack, I swear …’ still lacking the words, but no longer needing them.

Ennis in his closet tending to his broken heart
Ennis in his closet tending to his broken heart and breaking ours

Ennis closes the closet door and walks away. The film ends juxtaposing this curtailed space with the world outside his window, the world on the mountain that he once inhabited with Jack. Their history is hidden and invisible to the outside world as the credits roll. Ennis has locked away too much in this closet – his past, his unspeakable love and the enormity of his loss. With these contrasting images, Brokeback Mountain ends somewhere in the space between inside and outside, private and public, visible and invisible. The open space is out there but Ennis can’t do anything about it, and as he reflects at the close of Proulx’ story, ‘if you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it.’

In the end, it’s the closet buried deep within Ennis that’s the most destructive. He will have to live within its walls every day for the rest of his life. And I think he knows this, which makes it all the more heartbreaking to watch him tend to his shirts and then close the closet door. Ledger conveys a lifetime of regret here. Although neither man has said ‘I love you’ throughout the course of the film, it doesn’t need to be said for us to know it’s true. Lee has shown it to us in countless ways. And here it’s the final truth in Ledger’s mournful, wet eyes. It’s gut wrenching stuff; one of the most moving scenes in all the films I’ve ever watched. And certainly the highlight of Ledger’s distinguished and far too short career.

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