Brokeback Mountain is not a landscape film. Rather, it’s a film that begins in the great outdoors, specifically the beautiful, idyllic mountains of Wyoming, but does everything it can to warn the viewer that it is not, in fact, your typical romantic, grandiose landscape film. Instead of being shot as a classical landscape, these western acres are presented as the anti-landscape.
And, perhaps that’s what Brokeback Mountain is: the anti-landscape film. When we see the area surrounding our protagonists, young cowboys Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis del Mar (Heath Ledger), we only see parts of it. A cluster of sheep, a campfire, a rippling lake. But we never get that sweeping establishing shot that we might have been expecting. And this limited, constricted viewpoint ultimately sets the tone for the remainder of the film.
Throughout the 2005 drama, director Ang Lee and his DP, Rodrigo Prieto, use a device that is unconventional when it comes to landscape photography: the long lens. When setting a story in and around a landscape, filmmakers predominantly extend the scenery to the very edge of their frame. Take, for instance, Lawrence of Arabia (1962), or The Revenant (2015). Both films use extremely wide lenses to include as much landscape information as possible. But, as far as cinematography goes, Brokeback Mountain’s camera does something subversive and different.
The function of a long lens is that it compresses the space within a shot. One could indeed achieve the exact same-distanced shot with a shorter lens that is situated closer to its subject, but that would provide a very different outcome.
Brokeback Mountain opens with Jack and Ennis meeting when they are hired to take care of Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming for a summer in the early 1960s. On the mountain, the two begin an illicit romantic relationship. The remainder of the film follows their sparse and unsatisfying meetings over the course of two decades, as they navigate starting their own families, hiding their true feelings, and battling the rampant homophobia of the American West.
Distance defines Jack and Ennis’ relationship — physical and emotional. After their summer on Brokeback, Jack moves to Texas, and Ennis remains in Wyoming. When they do see each other, they have to drive for hours and put their lives on pause. The two also find it virtually impossible to connect emotionally. Ennis is too afraid of people finding out who he really is to indulge in the possibility of Jack being more than just a once-in-a-while fling. Meanwhile, Jack continually yearns for a day where Ennis can admit his true feelings and they can figure out a way to be together. But that day never comes.
Similar to the ethos of Jack and Ennis’ entire relationship, the long lens is about distance. When the camera appears to be close to a subject, it is actually far from it. The subject seems like it is in reach, but in reality, it is inaccessible. This parallel to Jack and Ennis’ relationship is foreshadowed during their time on the mountain, particularly in a shot where Ennis sits naked in the background while Jack is in focus in the foreground. The tension is palpable, and the lens makes the two look like they are situated near one another. But, with the knowledge of lens mechanics, in retrospect, they are far apart.
Indeed, with the distance that the long lens brings also comes compression. One cannot exist without the other. Throughout the film, Jack and Ennis become more and more compressed into their own stifling lifestyles, which are defined by the societal confines that keep them from one another in the first place. Jack marries Lureen (Anne Hathaway) and becomes ensnared in a family that emasculates him more and more as time progresses.
Lee presents this emasculation in subtle ways, as with a step-father who won’t let him cut his own turkey on Thanksgiving, who also undermines Jack’s parenting abilities by switching on the TV during dinner even when Jack asks him not to. Masculinity is implicit in the society of Brokeback Mountain, and one doesn’t need to look hard to find it. When Jack and his step-father bicker about whether or not the TV should be on in front of Jack’s son during Thanksgiving dinner, the step-father simply says, “You want your boy to be a man, don’t you? Men watch football.”
Ennis is compressed into the world of toxic masculinity even more than Jack is. He punches a man on the Fourth of July for using foul language in front of his daughters and refuses to sleep with his wife, Alma (Michelle Williams), if she doesn’t want any more children with him. This ultimately costs him his marriage and custody of his daughters, Jenny and Alma Jr.
By the end of Brokeback Mountain, Ennis’ world has shrunk to about as small as it can get. The psychological confinements of masculinity have materialized into physical brevity. Ennis’ world now exists solely in a claustrophobic mobile home. He has gone from the sprawling countryside of Brokeback Mountain to a kitchen, a toilet, and a bed.
The final scene of Brokeback Mountain shows a conversation between Ennis and his now-adult daughter, Alma Jr. (Kate Mara). Alma tells her father that she is getting married. “He loves you?” Ennis asks. She is able to love openly at nineteen, the age Ennis was when he met Jack. Because Alma’s world is allowed to be bigger.
And then Alma is gone. Ennis’ daughter — his last remaining loved one — has left his family to create her own. His world has shrunken even further. Ennis walks over to his closet and runs his hand along one of Jack’s shirts from their time on Brokeback Mountain. He then straightens out a postcard of Brokeback Mountain and looks at it teary-eyed. The image on the postcard is shot with a wide lens and looks as one might expect the shots in the first quarter of the film to look. But, now that we’ve gotten this image, it is on a mere postcard.
And so, even the mountain that set the stage for the entire lives of our two protagonists has effortlessly diminished to a couple of inches. The postcard is how they once communicated, and now it is all Ennis has left as proof the relationship even happened at all. The image is flat and implicit that it isn’t even “real,” just an image of a place someone might send to their kids from their vacation to the mountains.
When Ennis closes his closet door, he reveals the view from his window. Even Wyoming isn’t what it used to be. Instead of sprawling mountains, the land is a flat, lifeless, industrialized cornfield. And Ennis’s life isn’t what it used to be. His once-freeing job as a cowboy has transformed into a mere ranch-hand, a demeaning, stifling lifestyle. His life is no longer a life, but rather a postcard of a life that once was; what could have been.