Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down
Everybody wants a piece of Jack Twist. Have you seen the man? Can you blame them? But as a gay or bisexual man in the 1960's, Jack doesn't have much agency over what he can do with his body in life…or even in death. The dispute over his ashes at the end illustrates how helpless Jack is. His fate is out of hands, and dependent on the whims of society.
We discussed Jack's ashes a bit when talking about Annie Proulx's short story, but we want to blow the dust off his urn and look at it from a different angle.
It seems like the movie is using Jack's death to punish Ennis. We follow Ennis through the uncomfortable encounter with Jack's parents, and we linger on Ennis's sadness about losing the man he loved. He loved Jack Twist and all he got was those two lousy shirts? Seriously?
But could they have ended up any other way?
Brokeback Mountain sends a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" message with Jack's death. Ennis lives in fear of people learning his true sexuality, because he thinks he'll be killed if anyone finds out. Jack lives a more transparent lifestyle, and is killed as a result, which confirms Ennis's fears. Not only that, but Jack's dying wish isn't even honored because his dad wants to spite his own gay son. If Ennis had attempted a life with Jack, they may have both been killed.
The American West is a lonely place, but any place can be lonely if you're expected to shoehorn your identity into a stiflingly narrow view of what's normal and acceptable.