Whether or not you’ve seen it, the story and styling of Brokeback Mountain (2005) have become so iconic you already know it. Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) meet one summer during a seasonal job tending sheep on—you guessed it—Brokeback Mountain. Their attire of wool jackets, skintight blue jeans and matching denim shirts with leather boots perfectly square them in the trope of the cowboy. They spit often, talk little, and look each other in the eye even less. At first anyway. Shot by Taiwanese director Ang Lee (of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon fame), it became known as “the gay cowboy movie.” (Never mind that two are not cowboys but farmhands, and their orientation remains ambiguous.)
The two farmhands, their boss informs them, are going to stay up in the mountains. Their job is a solitary one, and they’ll be there for months, sleeping in a tent, their only point of outside contact being a once-a-week drop of provisions (mostly beans.) All they have is each other, and the first thirty minutes of the film is a quiet pastoral build to very sudden sex.
“That’s the most I’ve heard you say in weeks,” says Jack when, over a campfire Ennis begins to open up about his dead parents and his life. “I think that’s the most I’ve ever said,” says Ennis as the two seem to relax into each other’s company, drinking whiskey. When Ennis falls asleep by the fire, Jack wakes up at Ennis’ shivering and tells him to get in the tent. It’s in this scene that Jack reaches over and puts Ennis’ arm around himself. Ennis wakes up confused and bolts upright, but Jack insists, hugging him and kissing him briefly before he unbuttons his pants and then suddenly, Jack bends over and, braver than the marines with an ass full of beans, allows Ennis to penetrate him, using only a little spit.
The movie doesn’t have many sex scenes and this one comes as a shock to the viewer. No foreplay! No lube! A 2014 thread on a forum called Data Lounge called “I find the buttfucking scene from Brokeback Mountain unconvincing” begins “Seriously, they fucked after they had beans for dinner? I saw no evidence that either of them douched their asses first.” With nearly a hundred comments, the thread goes on to discuss the scene and debate the claim. Space is given to how long it would have taken Jake Gyllenhaal's character to have had a BM after eating the beans, whether or not his character had IBS, the possibility that Jack had pre-lubed (but with what did he lube, one longs to ask. With… beans?) Other points are raised: perhaps Jack had been stretching the area, or perhaps Jack was blessed that night in the fact that Ennis has a very petite penis. One user even raises the possibility that Jack did douche, he hid behind some bushes or something with a bottle of Summer’s Eve, we just didn’t see that scene, as movies never show the prep work it takes to have anal!
The arguments from both sides (yes, it’s real cowboy sex, or no, it’s too hardcore to be realistic) are heated, but one user sums up the consensus succinctly: “If you can’t put up with a little shit, you have no business being gay.” As filmmaker Annelise Ogaard said in a recent tweet, “Lee meant to confront his audience with the realities of gay sex, not only refusing to sanitize it, but exaggerating the stuff straight people find abject.”
In his interview On The Geneaology of Ethics, Foucault explains that difference between friendship and a sexual relationship is that “Friendship is Reciprocal, and sexual relationships are not reciprocal: in sexual relations, you can penetrate or you are penetrated.” Lee shows us the penetration immediately, there is no playfulness or shared intimacy in it, it is instantaneous and to the point in showing us who is penetrating and who is getting penetrated.
The sex scene is shocking for its violence (the viewer, quickly wonders if this is going to be a rape scene before realizing Jack Twist is consenting to the rough sex), but the story of Brokeback Mountain is a story of love in the face of violence. For Ennis, queerness is inherently tied to violence; he tells Jack about a childhood experience where his father takes him and his brother to witness the murdered body of a neighboring rancher, who was rumored to be in a gay couple, tortured and killed for that reason. This scene isn’t just a narration but is shown in a flashback, making the violence and queer connection in Ennis’ life register deeply for the viewer—this happens again when, after getting word of Jack’s death, Ennis imagines his lover being similarly brutally murdered.
Lee wanted to avoid the two most common types of normalization of queer stories: universalizing and particularizing, as they are described in Brenda Cooper and Edward Paese’s article Framing Brokeback Mountain. Through universalizing, the story is read as just another universal love story in which normative heterosexual love can recognize itself while considering the queerness purely accidental. By particularizing the interpretation, the movie reads as the individual story of two young men living in the rural west in the 1960s. For Lee, queerness had to be at the front of the movie. Brokeback Mountain wasn’t going to simply be a story about a friendship between two men, no matter how homoaffective, but a story about sexual politics and politics in their effect on sex. And the way to focus on the politics is to eliminate the idea that in this relationship, too there is a perfect reciprocity (this lack of reciprocity is mirrored in class and style; Jack’s cowboy wardrobe is notably flashier than Ennis’s threadbare one.)
Soon after the sex scene, we witness the two protagonists trying to come to terms with the meaning of their experience. “I ain’t no queer,” says Ennis and Jack replies, “Me neither”. Soon after the disavowal, a fight starts between the two. The tension that started from sexuality is soon further released in a fistfight, a continuation of sex through other means. The rules of the Western are finally reaffirmed, but in the moment when men resort to violence to settle their question of powers, we get tenderness. The two are locked like stags bumping horns, only to stop when Jack starts hugging Ennis. The tenderness of this scene is highlighted at the end of the film, when Ennis, going to Jack’s parents house to ask if he can honor Jack’s wishes to scatter his ashes on Brokeback Mountain, finds that Jack kept their bloody shirts hidden away in his childhood bedroom.
In the final scene of the film, after Ennis’ daughter comes to his trailer to tell him that she’s getting married, we see Ennis alone, sipping whiskey (seemingly happy) returning to the shirts, where they hang, altar-like, together with a postcard of Brokeback Mountain. “Jack, I swear”, Ennis says, looking at the tableaux. The expression is suspended and cryptic; Ennis is once again at a loss for words. At the same time it’s an invocation of his lover, and another disavowal of what their love meant, a tenderness for a man that loved him so much, and an expression of violence, of his continuous inability to accept this love because of the forms of masculinity he has inherited.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.