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Scene Analysis: Brokeback Mountain

January 22, 2013


Scene Analysis: Brokeback Mountain

Final Scene “Jack, I Swear”

Today marks the fifth anniversary of Heath Ledger’s death, so what better way to honour him than to revisit perhaps his greatest moment as a screen actor, and to remember – in my humble opinion – one of the best and most moving cinematic performances of recent times.

The scene in question from Brokeback Mountain, marks the final, quiet moments of main character Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) as he goes about his daily business in his trailer home. The sequence is in essence a summation of the ultimate tragedy and ruination Ennis finds himself in by the story’s close, although crucially it also locates the grace Ennis finds in his submission to quietly living out his remaining days in a form of worship to his lost love. Ennis may have ended the narrative in a materially weak position as a poor, ‘unsuccessful’ man, but the film accords him the status of moral nobility.

Ennis is a man now well into his middle-aged years – he even has a teenage daughter – and much like with Orson Welles in the great Citizen Kane, there is a knowing power/poignancy in bearing witness to the lifetime ageing of the central character through the film (it helps that both Ledger’s and Welles’ are remarkably virtuoso performances too). Of course, our conscious selves know it’s a twenty-something Heath Ledger, but the part of us that suspends our disbelief each time we enter the cinema, is moved by following Ennis every step of the way, through the years, as he fades away in the melancholic undertow of his thwarted affair with Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal).

There is an air of sad resignation as Ennis wearily shuts the door at the scene’s start, amply demonstrated in the Gustavo Santaolalla soundtrack that Ang Lee chooses to compliment the action (0.02). Then you’ll notice the way that Ennis very carefully folds and puts away a piece of clothing (0.17). In this respect, he’s a Hemingway-esque code hero, with dignity born from the patience and care shown in the little details of life. Manifesting the sense that Ennis has dedicated himself to a life of private remembrance for his love, he has intentionally placed Jack’s outfit and a picture of Brokeback Mountain on the inside of his wardrobe (0.30), so he can be reminded of it every time he puts a piece of clothing away.

Again, Ennis poignantly takes time to do the buttons up on Jack’s shirt (0.35), and though from a strictly impersonal perspective it may seem an unhealthy and abnormal ritual, knowing Ennis as we do – with his chronic emotional dysfunctionality – there is a natural logic to him only being able to live in and commemorate his feelings for Jack, after he has died. What immediately follows is the moment of ‘catharsis’, when the camera moves to Ennis’ face and captures him in bittersweet tears (o.43). This, in a sense, is not only release for Ennis, but the audience too, after two plus hours of emotional torpor.

What’s so beautiful about Ledger’s tears are how genuine and unactorly they are. You’ll notice the brilliance in the subtlety of Ledger’s acting when at 0.45 he makes an ever-so-minimal nodding gesture. The nod and then the cleverly elusive “Jack, I Swear” (0.49) demonstrating how Ennis is acting out a form of sacred communion with Jack, also apparent from his attempt to personify Jack’s clothes by buttoning and arranging them carefully.

Ennis tenderly touches the photo of Brokeback Mountain (0.56) – the symbolic haven for his and Jack’s love – then Lee brilliantly finishes on a classic ‘western’ shot of an open plain as Ennis closes the wardrobe (1.00). Far from eliciting a sense of closure, I actually think that the vista is almost suggestive of Ennis’ colossal loneliness, trapped in a barren and desolate, emotional – as well as physical – geography, from which he’ll never be able to recapture the idyll of his lost love. (January 2013)

For my full review, read here:

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