Back to home Film Index
Cinema Therapy movie reviews
Online courses for professionals
Cinema Therapy certificate
Book: E-Motion Picture Magic

Why Cinema Therapy works
Guidelines for choosing films
Guidelines for watching films
Theory and guidelines for therapists
FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions
Experts talk about cinema therapy
Tell us your story

Professional Directory
Cinema Therapy groups
Articles by Birgit Wolz
Other articles and useful links
Cinema Therapy bibliography

The Press Room
Contact info
CT Newsletter Archive
the Web

© Birgit Wolz
Occidental, CA, USA



Therapeutic Movie Review Column

By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT

Brokeback Mountain

Director: Ang Lee
Producers: Diana Ossana, James Schamus
Screenwriters: Larry McMurtry, Diana Ossana
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway, Randy Quaid, Linda Cardellini, Anna Faris, Scott Michael Campbell, Kate Mara
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2005


Brokeback Mountain is based on a short story by Annie Proulx, published in The New Yorker in 1997. The drama covers two decades, beginning in 1963. In Signal, Wyoming, when Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist are about 20 years old, they get a job tending sheep on Brokeback Mountain for a local rancher. Ennis is a boy of few words; he learned to be guarded and fearful long before he consciously knew what he feared. Eventually he shares that he was raised by his brother and sister after their parents died in a car crash. Therefore he only completed one year of high school before having to work. Jack, a Texan, who was raised by a domineering father, is somewhat more talkative and has done some rodeo riding. Both are descendants of their culture, the American West and its cowboy mythology - taciturn and stoic.

After some weeks have passed on the mountain and some whiskey has been drunk, they reach out to each other in an almost violent sexual passion that surprises them both. "You know I ain't queer," Ennis tells Jack after their first night together. "Me, neither," says Jack. "This is a one-shot thing we got going on here," states Ennis and Jack agrees. But they are intensely drawn to each other and cannot stop.

When the summer is over, they part laconically: "I guess I'll see ya around, huh?" When Jack returns in the following year to ask for work, their no-nonsense boss, who had watched the lovers through binoculars, doesn't want him back: "You guys sure found a way to make the time pass up there. You weren't getting paid to let the dogs guard the sheep while you stemmed the rose."

In agreement with the disapproving heterosexual world, Jack and Ennis attempt to settle down and live "normal" lives, but nothing will ever be the same for them. Jack marries a rodeo queen, Lureen, in Texas, becomes the father of a boy, and settles into a job working for his wife's family business. Ennis gets married to his fiancée, Alma, and they have two daughters.

In 1967, when Jack visits Ennis in Wyoming, the two men embrace and move to the side of the house for a passionate kiss. Alma sees them and is completely shocked, but she cannot bring herself to say anything. "If you can't fix it, you gotta stand it," says Ennis, expressing his philosophy of staying in the closet, while he begins to see Jack secretly for "fishing trips" on Brokeback Mountain. The main characters are incarnating the basic human needs for wholeness, fulfillment, and a true love who accepts them as they really are. They struggle valiantly over the years to make their marriages, their children, and their work sources of meaning, but neither man is able to fully engage with his life. Their story reveals the pain of living with hidden identities. Despite the intimacy they share, there is a certain formalism between Jack and Ennis that might stem from their seeming inability to admit their homosexuality, even to each other.

After several years, doling out their love during just a few weeks a year is not enough for Jack. He suggests that they leave their wives and live together on a small ranch, but Ennis is not willing to take the risk, frightened that they will be discovered: "This thing gets hold of us at the wrong time and wrong place and we're dead." His father taught him to hate homosexuals, and therefore his own feelings. Ennis tells Jack about something he saw as a boy. "There were two old guys shacked up together. They were the talk of the town, even though they were pretty tough old birds." One day they were found beaten to death. Ennis says "My dad, he made sure thatme and my brother saw it. For all I know, he did it."

Jack is able to accept a little more willingly that he is inescapably gay. In frustration and need, he goes to Mexico and finds a male prostitute. After Ennis' marriage has failed and after his world has compressed to a mobile home, the laundromat, and the TV, he blames his pain on Jack: "Why don't you let me be? It's because of you, Jack, that I'm like this -- nothing, and nobody." Ennis' effort to resist his love for Jack turns him into an angry, bitter drunk who shuts out everybody. The two men's wives and children are victims too. Alma finally calls Ennis on his "fishing trips". It took her a long time to do that, because nothing in her background prepared her for what she has found out about her husband.

Jack dies 20 years after the two men met. The viewer cannot be sure about the scenes of his murder in a flashback: Are we witnessing what really happened, or how the grieving Ennis sees a hate crime in his imagination? His subsequent visit to Jack's parents is heartbreaking because of what is said, and not said, about their world. A look around his lover's childhood bedroom suggests to Ennis what he overcame to make room for his feelings.

(This article uses quotes from Brokeback Mountain, review by Roger Ebert on December 16, 2005 in Chicago Sun-Times)

Cinema Alchemy:

My gay client, Vince, told me that he experienced Brokeback Mountain as very powerful. When I asked him which scene and character impacted him the most, he pointed to the end of the film: Ennis had come back to his trailer from his visit to Jack's parents, and looks at his deceased lover's shirt that he was allowed to keep. Vince expressed sadness and anger when he told me that it broke his heart to see Ennis looking "so alone, isolated and lost". "It doesn't need to be that way", he added.

I asked my client whether this scene reminded him about something in his own life. At this point memories and emotions started pouring out of him. For the first time Vince found the courage to tell me about the most lonely and painful experience of his life. He became aware of his homosexuality in the 1960's, at age 12. Because he was too afraid to talk to anybody about it, he started educating himself about sexuality in a public library. There he learned that homosexuality is a mental illness and that gay people can never be happy. This sickness can only be healed if a young person undergoes therapy treatment before late adolescence. Because Vince believed that adults are always right, he fell into deep despair. The boy was very attached to his family. Now he became afraid that he will be separated from everybody because he is going to end up in a mental asylum. At the same time, Vince's homophobic father, who intuited his son's sexual orientation, made hateful remarks when he was drunk.

Eventually my client was able to break through his isolation by sharing his secret with a school counselor, asking her to tell his mom. Even though Vince's mother never rejected him and divorced his father, he insisted on starting therapy. He wanted to be "cured" to become "normal". Surprising for Vince and the therapist, this treatment ended up confirming his client's sexual orientation. In college he met supportive friends, and experienced a sense of belonging as a gay man for the first time. Since then he has lived in an environment that he experiences as "extremely permissive".

Vince was confused about his strong reaction to the movie since he knew now that his childhood beliefs were wrong. I responded by asking him whether there might be a part in him, an "Inner Ennis" or "Inner 12-year old", who believes that the books he read as a child and his father were right. We discussed a possible connection between this part inside him and the fact that Vince has never been in a long-term relationship, although he misses it, because he is too afraid of getting hurt. Vince began to deeply understand his internalized homophobia for the first time. I guided him into a healing dialog between the "Inner Ennis" and his "True Self". Consequently my client lost much of his fear and is starting to make steps toward dating.

When Sally came back for her next session, she told me that she felt inspired by the movie. I suggested parts work with chairs, while using the character Helen. I asked my client to sit in chair one and sense Helen's fear and vulnerability as it was displayed in the first scene -- the vulnerable-and-afraid-Helen-chair. This way Sally's vulnerability received a voice through her identification with the character. When I asked my client whether this was a familiar experience and invited her to speak from this inner place, she uncovered the deeper source of these feelings. There was, in fact, a connection to her father, who had frequently told her that she should stop crying, otherwise he would give her a reason to cry. After she seemed to have reached sufficient clarity about this object relation, I asked Sally to change to chair number two -- the courageous-and-strong-vulnerable-Helen-chair. Now my client "became" the Helen that she had seen in the second scene. Sally was able to sense Helen's courage to faced her fear. When I asked her about her physical sensations, she discovered a solid, strong quality in her belly. I pointed out that, although she was sitting in "Helen's chair", she felt her own strength. Once she owned this experience, I asked Sally to imagine apologizing to her boyfriend. Immediately her vulnerability arose again, but she did not push it away. For the first time, my client experienced a strength that allowed her to tolerate her vulnerability.

Theoretical Contemplations:

Movie characters, with their distinct personalities and behaviors, become place-holders for the parts the client works with, either through chair work or imagery work.

Attributing film characters to inner parts helps

•  identify and distinguish parts,

•  understand their relationship to each other,

•  adopt an attitude of respectful attention to parts,

•  accept disowned parts,

•  reassign new roles to parts,

•  mediate between parts and resolving conflicts,

because they make the experience of inner parts more concrete.

In times of emotional stress, clients are usually not in touch with their strength and courage and the means by which they can access them. Through parts work, by identifying with different characters or different aspects of one character, clients can recognize that these qualities are latent and available to them, as Sally's case demonstrated. I believe that, without the aid of the movie experience, it would have been much harder for my client to recognize these capacities in herself.

Guidelines for questions and interventions:

Questions and statements during parts work:

•  What scene and character affected you most?

•  Does this scene remind you of an experience in your current life or your past?

•  Do you aware of a part inside yourself that could be called your "Inner (name of character)"?

•  What function does this part have in your life?

•  What function does this part have in your life? How does it serve or hinder you?

•  Initiate dialog between "Inner (name of character)" and "True Self" and/or other parts.


Birgit Wolz wrote the following continuing education online courses;

Cinema Therapy - Using the Power of Movies In the Therapeutic Process, which guides the reader through the basic principles of Cinema Therapy.

Cinema Therapy with Children and Adolescents - This course teaches Cinema Therapy with young clients. It includes numerous movie suggestions, which are categorized according to age and issues. It serves therapists, teachers, and parents.

Positive Psychology and the Movies: Transformational Effects of Movies through Positive Cinema Therapy - This course teaches how to develop clinical interventions by using films effectively in combination with positive psychotherapy. It serves for mental health practitioners and anybody who is interested in personal growth and emotional healing.

Therapeutic Ethics in the Movies - What Films Can Teach Psychotherapists About Ethics and Boundaries in Therapy, which covers: confidentiality, self-disclosure, touch, dual relationships and out-of-office experiences (i.e., home visits, in-vivo exposures, attending a wedding, incidental encounters, etc.)

Boundaries and the Movies - Learning about Therapeutic Boundaries through the Movies, which covers informed consent, gifts, home office, clothing, language, humor and silence, proximity and distance between therapist and client, and, finally, sexual relations between therapist and client.

DSM: Diagnoses Seen in Movies - Using Movies to Understand Common DSM Diagnoses.

Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (PDM) - A New Approach to Diagnosis in Psychotherapy