Mary Arline (queen_of_kithia) wrote,
Mary Arline

In Defense of Jack Twist

Of the criticisms I have read of Brokeback Mountain (and I haven't read very many) it seems that many critics, both amateur and professional "get" Ennis more than they "get" Jack. They understand where Ennis is coming from, what motivates him, etc., but Jack they don't get. And their inability to get him leads them to malign him, or if that be too harsh, at least to interpret his character uncharitably. Such uncharitable interpretations include Gene Shalit's harsh criticism of Jack as a "sexual predator" (although, in fairness to Mr. Shalit, he did later apologize for that remark), and a review I saw on a website called HollywoodJesus.com1 in which one reviewer dismissed Jack as merely a "guy who likes guys."

It makes sense that people would relate more to Ennis than to Jack. For one thing, he's the main protagonist, and insofar as the movie tells the story from a character's viewpoint, it is mostly Ennis' viewpoint (the movie gives a lot more insight into Jack's viewpoint than does the short story, which is told almost entirely from Ennis' viewpoint). Moreover, Ennis Del Mar is almost a quintessential example of the iconic American man. He is strong and silent. He works with his hands, and speaks with his fists. He knows how to shoot a gun. He expects to be the master of the house, the sole provider for his family. And even when he and Jack do have relations, he takes the masculine position. So except for the small matter of having sex with another man, he's exactly what we've all traditionally been taught from infancy that a man should be.

In that case, I can see where it would be difficult for people to reconcile his character with the whole having-sex-with-another-man thing, especially if they are initially reluctant to recognize homosexuality as anything but perversion. How could this paragon of masculinity do such a thing? It would be convenient, though simplistic, to blame Jack. Yes, that Jack, that "Jack Nasty" (as Ennis' ex-wife Alma adorably refers to him) he seduced him, he's out to convert people, like they all are. Such people probably take Ennis at his word when he says, "It's because of you, Jack, that I'm like this; I'm nothing, I'm nowhere..." And actually, I can't say that that's not a valid interpretation, because there's simply not enough evidence to the contrary. Maybe if it hadn't been for Jack and all the "fishing trips" Ennis' marriage to Alma wouldn't have fallen apart, and they'd still be together and happy. Personally, I think the movie makes it pretty clear that Ennis and Alma have problems quite apart from Ennis' relationship with Jack, but maybe that was the straw that broke the camel's back (in which case it would be a brokeback camel hahaha...sorry, I couldn't resist).

One of the best things about the film is that it's so ambiguous as to be open to wide interpretation, so I don't intend to argue that the uncharitable interpretations of Jack are invalid; what I do intend to argue is that they are shallow interpretations, and if we look a little deeper we will find that there's a lot more to Jack beneath the surface than some of us appreciate.

I'm not necessarily defending the things that Jack does; in some respects, he is rather a schmuck. Not only is he not faithful to his wife, he's not faithful to Ennis2, and while I find his actions understandable--kind of--I don't find them excusable. And yet, I fall into the category of people and characters who don't really get Ennis Del Mar, but I find I can much more easily identify with Jack. Because Jack, like me, is a dreamer; he's always coming up with big plans and big ideas, but he lacks the drive, ambition, gumption, motivation, or whatever you want to call it to make those ideas a reality (granted, in some cases those plans require the cooperation of other people, like Ennis, which he can't get). He has a lot of charm, but he doesn't seem to have a lot of good ol' common sense. His wife handles the financial side of the family business while he's out schmoozing the farmers and charming their pants off in order to make the sales.

A task which, by the way, he seems well suited for. While the suggestion that he's a "sexual predator" is, of course, ridiculous (he clearly never forces Ennis or any of his sexual partners into anything), and it's open to interpretation whether he's a seducer in the sense of "one who corrupts others," he is certainly very charming and able to persuade a reluctant sexual partner. Actually, as we will see later, his looks and charm seem to do a lot of the persuading for him, and his sexual partners never seem that reluctant in the first place.

But the contention that Jack is simply "a guy who likes guys" seems to suggest that all he's interested in is the sex and that he doesn't actually care about Ennis and their relationship. Again, that's not necessarily an invalid interpretation, but I don't think it's entirely fair. Rather than being "a guy who likes guys," I see Jack more as someone who's all but irresistable to both men and women. Yes, he initiates the relationship with Ennis on Brokeback Mountain, but again, it didn't take a whole lotta persuasion to get Ennis to reciprocate. Yes, he seeks out the services of the Mexican prostitute, but that's a different situation that I shall deal with separately. And yes, when he first meets his wife Lureen he makes the first move, but she quickly becomes the aggressor in their courtship, an arrangement which he seems pretty content with. And when he takes up with ranch foreman, Malone, it is in fact Malone who makes the first pass.

There is another example that shows Jack's charm as being hard to resist, even when he's not trying to charm anyone. It's the scene in which Jack meets the rodeo clown in the bar after the rodeo and tries to buy him a drink, and I confess that the first couple of times I saw the movie I didn't understand what it was doing there. What happens is that Jack sees the rodeo clown at the bar and tries to buy him a drink, at which point the rodeo clown refuses while looking really uncomfortable and beats a hasty retreat to the pool table where there is safety in numbers. Now again, this scene is open to interpretation; was he seeking out the rodeo clown as another potential sexual partner, or was he just trying to be friendly? It is true that buying a person a drink is an overture often used to initiate a flirtaion, but it's also often used just to show appreciation. The purpose of clowns in a rodeo is not only to amuse the spectators; their task is to distract the bull long enough for the bull rider to get out of the way, so not to be trampled to death. So in buying the rodeo clown a drink, Jack could be expressing gratitude for the clown's literally having saved his life. Whatever Jack's motivation, however, the clown is obviously made uncomfortable and rejects Jack's overtures, be they of friendship or otherwise.

The last of Jack's sexual conquests (that we know of) is the Mexican prostitute and it is this that seems to condemn him in the court of public opinion as unfaithful, as uncaring, as nothing more than a "guy who likes guys." I find it interesting to speculate about Jack's Mexican conquest (if you'll forgive the unintentional pun). We only see Jack go to Mexico once, and there's simply not enough evidence to show whether or not it is an isolated incident. When Jack and Ennis argue about it Ennis asks, "You been to Mexico, Jack Twist?" to which Jack responds, "Hell yes I been to Mexico," but even if you convert the words to standard grammar, these sentences give no indication of whether they are talking about an isolated incident or an established habit. But on the other hand, why would Jack bring up Mexico in the first place if he had only been there once several years ago? He does go on and refer to "needing something I don't hardly never get" and not being able to "make it on a few high-altitude fucks once or twice a year," but was he trying to rationalize multiple trips to Mexico or one trip to Mexico and liasions with Malone the ranch foreman?

I think it's important to consider these questions because I think it speaks to what Jack gets out of his relationship with Ennis; is it just about sex or is it something more? Even though the number of his trips to Mexico are unclear, it is significant that even after Jack makes his one trip to Mexico seen in the movie, he continues to go up and see Ennis in Wyoming. Mexico is a hell of a lot closer to Texas than Wyoming is, so if it was just about sex it seems that going to see Ennis is pretty far out of his way.

I think it's significant that we don't see Jack go to Mexico until after he's been rejected by Ennis, although for all we know he could have been there before. In this instance, he is in a state of hurt and anger as well as sexual frustration. It reminds me of a scene from City Slickers3 in which the main character, played by Billy Crystal, is having a mid-life crisis and his wife asks him if he could be driven to have an affair, as one of his best friends has. He scoffs at the idea but she perseveres, saying, (and I paraphrase) "I know how men operate. You think 'I'm not happy mentally, I'm not happy emotionally, I'll be happy physically.'" And that, I think, is kind of what's going on with Jack in that scene; he came to Wyoming expecting many things, and we can't even know all of them for sure (more on that in a minute), but certainly one thing he was expecting was sex with a man. And whatever else he was expecting, Ennis shut the door on those possibilities, but at least he can get the physical satisfaction if nothing else.

And yet, I wonder how satisfying it was. I posed the question before of whether or not the Mexico trip was an isolated incident. My interpretation, and of course an interpretation is really no more than an educated guess, is that it was. My interpretation is that Jack was confusing physical intimacy for emotional intimacy (as, it seems, many people do), and that what he really wanted was emotional intimacy, so that he left Mexico just as unsatisfied as he came, so he continued the arrangement with Ennis, as unsatifactory as that was, because it was better than nothing and better than Mexico. But then Malone offered him the opportunity of a new relationship, a new connection, and a hell of a lot closer to home. Yet he continued to see Ennis, although I wonder how much longer that would have lasted. I suspect that before too long Jack would have issued an ultimatum to Ennis, to fish or cut bait, either we be together or we don't. Or rather, I suspect that he would have wanted to give the ultimatum, would have thought about it, but never really gotten the nerve.

While a lot of Jack's behavior and motivation is open to interpretation, I think it's really unfair to him to suggest that all he cares about is sex, or that he cares about sex more than he cares about Ennis. As we have seen, if all he cared about was sex there were other options that were a lot less out of his way. Moreover, he shows a lot of caring and concern for Ennis and for his feelings. He often makes gestures toward Ennis that are meant to be merely comforting. He also takes care of Ennis a lot. For example, when Ennis shows up at camp with a bloody wound on his forehead from being thrown off his horse, Jack's first instinct is to get a wet cloth and clean the wound. Later, when he accidentally gives Ennis a bloody nose (they tend to express even affection through combative gestures, which is something else that we teach males in American society), he's quick to try to stop the bleeding with his own sleeve.

I think that Jack really cares about Ennis and about their relationship, arguably more so than Ennis himself. He's the one who's always pushing for a commitment,4 suggesting that they settle down together and live their lives with one another. Ennis pretty much shuts the door on that possibility during their first "fishing trip," but Jack brings it up at least once more, after Ennis confesses to feeling paranoid that people in his small town know his secret. I say "at least once more" because it seems possible that he thinks Ennis might be persuaded to change his mind after his divorce, but there's not enough evidence to say for sure. Jack says of the divorce, "I guess I thought this means that you..." What? that you were available to go "fishing"? that you were free to come back to Texas and be with me permanently? Once again, his true intention is left open to interpretation.

One of the strengths of this movie is that all the characters are so compelling because they are all so complex. They all have so much going on beneath the surface (even one as minor as the rodeo clown) and there's so much room for interpretation. It may be comfortable or comforting for some to dismiss Jack as lustful seducer, but it's so much more interesting and rewarding to look more deeply below the surface.

1, as the name suggests, is a website which gives reviews of movies from a Christian perspective; most of the reviewers are clergy of some description. I found out about it from watching the special features on the special edition Shawshank Redemption DVD, and I was curious to see what they would say about BBM. I was disappointed, though not exactly surprised, to see that most of the reviews were pretty lukewarm, although I was gratified to see that it wasn't just knee-jerk "this movie is evil!" rhetoric. Unfortunately, I can no longer find the specific review that I reference here. I'm such a sloppy researcher.

2It's made pretty clear in both the movie and the short story that they don't consider anything done with women cheating on each other; that's as much a survival technique as anything else.

3City Slickers, apropos of nothing, was Jake Gyllenhaal's film debut, in which he played Billy Crystal's son.

4 A lot of people, scholars and otherwise, would probably characterize Jack as the more feminine of the two characters, although Erik Lundegaard notably considers Jack the more masculine. I prefer not to make such a judgment since gender is a social construction and one I believe is neither necessary nor beneficial.
Tags: brokeback mountain, heath ledger, theme week
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