Macho, Macho Man
If Ennis Del Mar was asked to fill out an "About Me" section, he'd probably write approximately fifteen words. Tops. And that would be an insanely self-promotional moment for ol' Ennis.
Because our man Ennis just doesn't know how to express himself. He plays his cards close to his chest. He believes in being stoic and taciturn. He believes in the power of the stiff upper lip. As he tells Jack,
ENNIS: If you can't fix it, Jack, you gotta stand it.
And, really, that makes him kind of a man's man in 1960's Wyoming. He's self reliant and doesn't waste words. He's also a rancher, an average Joe, and a blue-collar family man. He could be the poster boy for the strong, silent, cowboy type…except for one crucial thing.
He's in love with another man.
Meeting Jack Twist on Brokeback Mountain turns Ennis' life upside down. He wants to be a simple man, leading a simple life with a wife, a job, and a couple of cute kids. After all, the dude's an orphan who has had to pave his own way since adolescence—stability was his end game. But that wasn't in the cards. A simple (Jack) twist of fate in the remote Rocky Mountains changed his life forever—and made it impossible for him to hide his true nature behind a façade of rugged masculinity.
If you've ever heard of the Myers-Briggs personality test, you'll know that some people are ENFPs or INTJs. Well, Ennis is CLCTWEU. That's Classic Loner Cowboy Type With Emotional Issues—and yes, neither Myers nor Briggs approved that classification. But it's a common personality among mythical Western men: the Marlboro Man, the Lone Ranger, and pretty much every role Clint Eastwood ever played.
Basically, Ennis is the walking embodiment of cowboy masculinity and the harmful effects that come with it—namely, bottling up emotions and getting violent.
Like many young boys, Ennis was expected to not show emotion. Standards of masculinity pressured him into expressing his feelings with his fists instead of his words. Ennis grew up in a hyper-masculine environment with his homophobic father who (allegedly) killed a gay man as an example to young Ennis of how not to live. This toxic childhood shaped Ennis into the silent, not-so-strong type he is.
Baby, You're a Firework
If you're anything like us, you spent your formative years shaking up cans of Diet Dr. Pepper and handing them off to unsuspecting friends and family members. You know what happens: the can explodes, Dr. Pepper goes everywhere, and hilarity ensues.
Well, those feelings inside Ennis are a whole lot like the contents of your average can of soda. And when he's shaken—by his initially repressed sexuality, by cowboys cussing in front of his daughters, or his ex calling him out about smooching with Jack Twist—he explodes.
And that's not always a bad thing. After all, Ennis is explosive in the tent with Jack. It's a passionate moment, made extra hot by the fact that Ennis is letting out feelings he didn't even know he had. And when Ennis sees Jack for the first time after four long years of separation, his kiss is anything but reserved and muted.
But for the most part, Ennis' bottled up emotions result in explosions of violence. Not only does he beat up those foul-mouthed cowboys on the Fourth of July (with some very symbolic fireworks going off behind him), he physically hurts Alma when she confronts him about his relationship with Jack. When she says she'll spill the beans about Ennis and Jack, he yells:
ENNIS: You do it, and I'll make you eat the f***in' floor.
Yikes. And we're not even mentioning the times he gets punchy with his beloved Jack.
And the sad thing is that this violence is due to the fact that Ennis is a walking powder keg. If he weren't bound by the unwritten rules that stated that a manly man had to hold back all emotions (and the very much written rules that said that love between two men was illegal—until 1977, Wyoming laws permitted a mental examination of anyone convicted of sodomy) Ennis would probably have been way more laid back. (Source)
Taken Over by the Fear
In our ideal version of Brokeback Mountain, Ennis and Jack would run away to late 1960's San Francisco, get an apartment in the Castro, and live happily ever after.
But that never could have happened…and not just because Annie Proulx decided to break our hearts. It's also because Ennis never could have made that massive of a leap—due to some massive childhood trauma:
ENNIS: I tell ya, there were these two old guys ranched up together down home, Earl and Rich. And they was the joke of town, even though they were pretty tough old birds. Anyway, they…they found Earl dead in an irrigation ditch. Took a tire iron to him, spurred him up and drug him around by his dick till it pulled off. […] Yeah, I was, what, nine years old? My daddy, he made sure me and my brother seen it. Hell, for all I know, he done the job. Two guys livin' together? No way.
Ennis doesn't just bottle up sadness and desire. He bottles up fear—and fear, as we know, has a nasty habit of growing bigger the more you try to repress it. By the time Ennis's an adult, he's ruled by his fear. Because his father (allegedly) killed a gay man, Ennis is petrified that something similar will happen to him. His fear grows into paranoia the older he gets.
Ennis shares his fear with Jack in a rare honest moment:
ENNIS: You ever get the feelin', I don't know, uh, when you're in town, and someone looks at you, suspicious, like he knows? And then you go out on the pavement, and everyone's lookin' at you, like they all know too?
(We have that fear too, but mainly because we basically always have something stuck in our teeth.)
But, our spinach-teeth aside, this fear of being discovered as gay tears Ennis and Jack apart, because Ennis's afraid of being seen with Jack. And that's no kind of good for any relationship. When Jack dies, Ennis tries to overcome his fears by visiting Jack's parents, but by that point it's too late. When Jack's father is rude to Ennis, it reinforces Ennis's fear, and makes us doubt he'll ever try a relationship with another man.
However, Ennis decides to confront his fear in one aspect at the end of the film. He opens up emotionally—just a wee little bit—to his daughter. He's lost Jack, but he realizes that he has other relationships that can comfort him.
Ugh. This movie's ending is so hard.