Brokeback Mountain and No Country for Old Men: the Contemporary Western Landscape

Table of Content

Over the past decade, several contemporary Westerns have emerged, presenting a new take on the iconic American Southwest. Some, rather than reinforcing the late 19th century image of fearless cowboys and manifest destiny, have elected to show a grimmer, more realistic depiction of life on the frontier. That is, the west during the second half of the 20th century. This west lacks the promise and freedom of the earlier west; it displays a world that has been the subject of societal exploitation and the enemy of time and weather.

It is a world in which the lines between civilization and the frontier have been blurred and thus the faults of each have crept to either side. The Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men encapsulates this deteriorated ideal: It “unfolds against one of America’s most visceral and mythologized landscapes”, only to reveal in its 1980s Texas setting a countryside that has become rampant with evil and destruction and a cityscape that is in no way different or more safe (Cinema Review).

This essay could be plagiarized. Get your custom essay
“Dirty Pretty Things” Acts of Desperation: The State of Being Desperate
128 writers

ready to help you now

Get original paper

Without paying upfront

Society has inserted itself into the Western landscape, distorted and adopted its affinity for gun-slinging and lawlessness, and sequentially assimilated itself back within the scope of “civilization”. The result is a terrifyingly violent arena in which no one can be trusted and nothing is certain. Alternatively, in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, the 1960s-1980s Wyoming and Texas setting shows a division between society and wilderness that has not yet wholly crumbled but is beginning to fall apart at the seams.

In some remote areas the frontier remains pure and untarnished by civilization; however, the promise of these areas is fleeting and quickly replaced by the harsh reality of the outer modern world. Within these landscapes, the central characters of Brokeback Mountain and No Country for Old Men are trying to preserve both historical and personal pasts while simultaneously coping with the truth of the present; that is, the inevitable corruption and distortion of the frontier under the hand of civilization.

In the opening monologue of No Country for Old Men, Sherriff Bell refers to the “old timers”, remarking, “You can’t help but compare yourself against the old timers. Can’t help but wonder how they’d have operated these times” (Coen and Coen). This line sets up the tone of the film while simultaneously cluing the audience into its context in relation to other western films. This is not a “traditional” story about the west with recognizable players.

It is what comes after these stories- the cruel, modern world that requires more than a white hat and a straight shot. Furthermore, this line reveals the nostalgia that exists both within Bell’s character and society as a whole for the simpler, morally clear past that no longer exists in “these times”. Both No Country for Old Men and Brokeback Mountain display a (relatively) modern generation dealing with a western landscape that is at times harsh, corrupt, and in terms of ideological implications in many ways no longer exists. We’re in what feels, for a few opening moments at least, like a paradise of spaciousness- except that the desert is littered with wrecked cars and rotting corpses, and the rest of the wide-open spaces have been layered over with highways and motels and all sorts of other precisely observed junk” (O’Brien, 31). This description is less literal in relation to Brokeback Mountain, however its meaning is still relevant; Ennis and Jack hold on to an illusion of freedom and solitude that is shown to be easily penetrated by the eyes of others and the trials and responsibilities of life in the modern world.

There are evidences of the past of the west in the modern landscape; however, they are often a far cry from their original manifestations. In Brokeback Mountain, the rodeo is a representation of distinctly western concepts (riding horses, ranching cattle, etc) that have been idolized and almost fetishized by society. What it does retain of the western identity is glamourized and requires an entrance fee. Alternatively, in No Country for Old Men what remains somewhat true to the ideals of the west is Sherriff Bell’s position.

The “Sherriff” is an intrinsic character to the west and often represents a sense of authority, safety, and lawfulness. Within the film, the position remains yet the ideals it stands for seem to have been stripped away. Bell is essentially unable to accomplish any sort of authoritative action throughout the film, and he is also unable to stop the evil acts taking place around him. He exists within “a rapidly changing West- a place where lawlessness has led to a brave new world of international drug running and where the old rules no longer seem to apply” (Cinema Review).

Thus, his typically crucial position as county Sherriff now holds little meaning in this new, modern world; what is left is merely the shell of how things used to be and the implication that, as the title of the film infers, he no longer serves a purpose within this landscape. Both No Country for Old Men and Brokeback Mountain illuminate the boundary between the frontier and civilization and present the issues that occur when that line is blurred. In No Country for Old Men, the film begins after society has already bled into and infected the west. The catastrophe already happened before the movie began; all that remains is to allow its implications to play themselves out, at least as far as the narrative cares to track them” (O’Brien, 28). That is to say, the damage has been done and there is little hope of reverting to the “old times”; one can merely watch the progression of destruction that has already been set in motion. In Brokeback Mountain, there still exists at least the facade of a space that has been untouched both literally and figuratively by civilization.

As this film deals primarily with the nonphysical restrictions set in place by society, it is important to note not just the visible effects but also the more prominent emotional effects- specifically, society’s negative view on homosexuality. “The ‘destructive rural homophobia’ in which Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar mature locates itself in the small towns and impoverished ranches on the Wyoming plains… [and it is]… ‘to the mountains that the two lovers go for their brief reunions’, finding in remote Wyoming a respite from constricting, conventional small-town life” (Tuss).

In Brokeback Mountain, the line between civilization and wilderness is signified not only by the obvious physical differences between the two places but also by the degrees of freedom, responsibility, and societal influence that are present in each environment. Unlike No Country for Old Men, in which the moral codes (and lack thereof) of society have already infiltrated the wilderness and vice versa, Brokeback Mountain still retains some semblance of a boundary; there is the wilderness, where Ennis and Jack can be free, and civilization, where they cannot.

The film is a constant interplay between these two spaces. “…At least one half of the film follows the lovers as members of a traditional family and their travails as heterosexuals. Almost every time we see Jack and Ennis together, the following scene concerns life on the heterosexual home front where girlfriends, wives, children, and in-laws both protect and threaten [their identities]” (Block). Throughout the film, the pressures of these “heterosexual lives” intensify and become extremely complex, further endangering and shrinking the space within which the men are able to find freedom.

While in No Country for Old Men the characters exist in a world in which the boundaries that define lawfulness, morality, and civilization have already collapsed, Ennis and Jack must continually traverse the lines that separate who they are from who society expects them to be. Both characters grapple to conform to the pre-existing roles that have been laid out for them by society, but Ennis in particular struggles with reconciling the truth of his self with his responsibilities and identity as a man.

It is Ennis who ultimately insists to Jack that it is an impossibility for them to exist together within the context of society. Despite his obvious affection for Jack, Ennis is determined to get married, have children, and pass as normal; for, to not do so could lead to death. As Ennis tells Jack, “If you can’t fix it, you gotta stand it” (Lee). The social implication that it is a man’s role and duty to protect and provide is one that is ubiquitous within the western genre. In spite of their openness, Westerns have tended to concentrate on a few central concerns: ‘[F]rom the beginning the Western has fretted over the construction of masculinity, whether in terms of gender (women), maturation (sons), honor (restraint), or self-transformation (the West itself)’” (Madden). In No Country for Old Men, both Sherriff Bell and Llewelyn at least attempt to assume the masculine identity of the dominant protector or authority.

In a film that is largely populated by “outcast, broken people trying to hang on to a sense of honor and freedom no longer celebrated in contemporary America”, Sherriff Bell is the forerunner, attempting to cling to the traits which traditionally speaking make for an effective and respected keeper of the peace (Cinema Review). Of course, in the face of the corrupt and cruel modern reality that is the setting of No Country for Old Men, he falls short.

So too does Llewelyn, who spends the entirety of the film attempting to keep hold of the money which will secure a decent life for him and his wife while simultaneously evading the evil forces that are working against him. In terms of traditional societal codes, he is acting (more or less) how a man should; he is attempting to provide for his family and keep them safe from harm. However, as these films imply, adherence to these codes does not guarantee a positive outcome.

Just as Llewelyn is ultimately gunned down and unable to protect his family, Ennis loses the secure family unit he strove to preserve in the name of ‘normalcy’ and is ultimately left without even the hope of reclaiming what he tried so hard to preserve in private. Often, a man’s determination to act as the sole provider or authoritative power within a relationship can backfire. As evidenced in both films, this is particularly true in relation to the role of the woman within the family.

The men in these films often, presumably in an effort to protect the women (as well as their selves) actively withhold information that could have potentially prevented a great deal of misfortune. Alternatively, the women seem to adhere to what is often a traditional female role within the context of the Western; they keep their qualms quiet in order to preserve peace and often trust the man despite their better judgment. In No Country for Old Men, Carla Jean obeys her husband up until his death, despite her own stipulations regarding what he believes will keep them safe.

Llewelyn purposefully keeps Carla Jean in the dark about what is actually going on, presumably at least partly in an effort to keep her mind at ease. Unfortunately, it is this exclusion of knowledge that prevents Carla Jean from being able to elicit Sherriff Bell’s help quickly and effectively. Ultimately, Llewelyn’s death could have potentially been prevented if he had decided to inform his wife of the stakes and circumstances of his situation.

Similarly, in Brokeback Mountain, both Jack and Ennis maintain their facades as “normal” married men, excluding their wives wholly from the truth about their sexuality and infrequent fishing trips. Since it seems that “masculine identity is both physical and behavioral, with exhibitions of manly restraint crucial to assertions of male identity”, the men seem to agree that this self-inflicted false lifestyle is what they are “supposed” to do, despite the pain and stress that it causes internally and within their relationships (Madden).

Rather than preserving the family unit, however, the perpetuation of lies leads to years of bitterness, contempt, and ultimately failure. Similarly to Carla Jean, the women in Brokeback Mountain seem to acknowledge that all is not well; however, they too follow the leads of their husbands and quietly ignore the warning signs that begin to present themselves. Ultimately, if both parties were able to strip away their perceived duties within their gender roles (the man’s need to protect his family and the woman’s need to trust and depend on the man), many of the damages suffered in these films could have been avoided.

In both No Country for Old Men and Brokeback Mountain, humanity can be identified as the major cause for destruction. This is contradictory to the popular belief that civilization infers cultivation and the promotion of growth; with the influx of knowledge and technology that comes with society also comes the often unreasonable and cruel nature of humanity. In the context of these films, the West or the frontier exists as an idyllic past or safe haven from the influences of modernity.

As society has developed, the freedom of wide-open spaces and the security of good dominating over evil has shrunk and become infinitely complex. No Country for Old Men demonstrates a nostalgia (primarily through the character of Sherriff Bell) for the frontier of the past; that which was kept in check by the “old-timers”. The frontier of the modern age does not adhere to the same rules. The lines between city and country have been blurred and evil the likes of Anton Chigurh can easily weave between both spaces causing destruction in its wake.

The moral codes which originally governed the west have been perverted and misused, resulting in a space that retains little of the freedom and promise it once signified. While No Country for Old Men displays the negative effects of society after the fact, Brokeback Mountain, observes the destruction as it takes place, focusing primarily on the shrinking window of freedom that the frontier presents. As society establishes and enforces gender roles, Ennis and Jack find that the only place they are able to shed their facades is in the freedom and solitude of Brokeback Mountain.

However, as the men age and their lives become further complicated by marriage, children, child support, jobs, etc. they find that it is increasingly more difficult to escape from their roles within civilization, lest they abandon social conventions altogether and face the risk of ostracism and potentially death. Both of these films show a loss of the past, whether it is the “old times” that Sherriff Bell “never misses an opportunity” to hear about or the glorified singular summer of freedom shared by Ennis and Jack.

Ultimately, both films demonstrate “the fast approaching end of an entire way of Western life; the last stand of honor and justice against a broken world; the ongoing human struggle against the sinister, the dark comedy and violence of modern times; the interplay of temptation, survival, and sacrifice; and, added into the mix, a touch of sustaining love and a sliver of hope in the darkness” (Cinema Review).

Works Cited

Block, Richard. “’I’m nothin. I’m nowhere’: Echoes of Queer Messianism in Brokeback Mountain.” CR: The New Centennial Review 9.1 (2009): 253-278. Project MUSE. Web. 5 Nov. 2012. “No Country for Old Men: Production Notes” Cinema Review. Cinema Review Magazine, 2012. Web. 25 Nov 2012.

Coen, Ethan and Coen, Joel. No Country for Old Men. Paramount Vantage, 2007. Film. Lee, Ang, and E A. Proulx. Brokeback Mountain. S.l.: Entertainment in Video, 2005. Film. Madden, David W. “Book Review: Westerns: Making the Man in Fiction and Film” Modern Fiction Studies 44.2 (1998): 429. Web. 25 Nov 2012.

O’Brien, Geoffery. “Gone Tomorrow” Film Comment 43.6 (2007):28-31. Web. 25 Nov 2012. Tuss, Alex J. “Brokeback Mountain and the Geography of Desire” Journal of Men’s Studies 14.2 (2006): 243-246. Web. 5 Dec 2012.

Cite this page

Brokeback Mountain and No Country for Old Men: the Contemporary Western Landscape. (2016, Dec 09). Retrieved from

Remember! This essay was written by a student

You can get a custom paper by one of our expert writers

Order custom paper Without paying upfront