Perhaps what is most striking about Brokeback Mountain, a film whose content certainly preceded it (yes, right, they're queer!) and whose title seems to cry out for facile punning (I recommend Bareback Mounting), is how little it resembles a "gay cowboy movie." Directed with a stoic tenderness by Ang Lee and adapted from a short story by Annie Proulx, this is the aching story of a love that cannot be fully consummated. Brokeback Mountain doesn't marginalize the sexuality of its primary characters, but the film does look beyond it to the human depths and repercussions of a youthful passion that lasted a lifetime.
The film opens on Ennis Del Mar (magnificently sullen Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (the respectable but less captivating Jake Gyllenhaal), two young cowpokes looking for work. The pair is hired to guard a herd of sheep on Brokeback Mountain and their journey out to the grazing lands allows for Lee's evocation of that classic western sequence: the cattle drive. Lee's combination of panoramic and detailed shooting gives a sense of both the isolation and the intimacy the two men are going to experience. Ang Lee's treatment of the countryside is thrilling. As he did in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Lee parlays the natural setting into a powerful metaphor for the love between his main characters.
I don't want to suggest that this movie is drawing heavily on the established mythos of the Western genre but rather draw attention to the wonderful realism with which it paints the life of the Wyoming roughneck. Ennis and Jack are not swaggering archetypes but hardscrabble youths living paycheck to paycheck. Their friendship is slow-growing and truthful, their budding attraction not initially expressed.
As Ennis and Jack become closer, they start sleeping in the same space instead of splitting their duties between watching the sheep and the campsite. Soon the moment arrives: the sex. I almost don't want to go into it, because I'm afraid the anticipation of it can overshadow enjoyment of the film. What is most striking about it is the almost accidental tone and the sudden ferocity while they struggle for dominance.
The two men form a deep bond during their stint on Brokeback but end up parting on ragged terms. When it becomes clear the next year that the situation will not repeat itself, they both try their hand at playing it straight. But Brokeback, the almost Edenic site of the two men's first commingling, acts as a tether, calling the two back as they try and increasingly fail to maintain both their secret love and their safe roles as hetero husbands and fathers.
One of the fantastic things about Brokeback Mountain is that it makes room for the women who enter the lives of both men. Ennis marries Alma (Michelle Williams), has two daughters, and continues work as a ranch hand. Jack marries Laureen (Anne Hathaway), the daughter of a rich farm equipment salesman, and they have a son. For a while at least, the two men appear to have settled with their past. They find some small joys in marriage and fatherhood. One of my favorite scenes is of Ennis, who has taken his family to a 4th of July picnic, protecting them from a pair of bikers who are behaving lewdly. Lee shows Ennis, determined and masculine to the extreme, silhouetted against bursting fireworks and acting for all the world like an American hero, while his impenetrable scowl hides his buried desires.
The two men eventually reunite and begin a long-distance relationship as old fishing buddies. The relationship is their secret joy, but it increasingly becomes a burden as well. The two are torn by allegiances to their families, by a growing economic divide, and by struggles over the marginalized nature of their relationship. Jack wants to run off together but Ennis is unwilling to, and his fears about the repercussions are captured in a flashback to his youth. When Ennis was young, his father took him to see the corpse of a murdered man, who had lived on a ranch with another man as his partner. Ennis wonders aloud if his father was showing him a warning or an example of his own handiwork, a chilling juxtaposition of a father's hidden life.
There is time in this film for many twists and turns. We struggle along with the two men, feeling the weight of their love and the painful impossibility of it growing clearer with age. The film is a triumph because it creates characters of humanity and anguish, in a setup that could easily become a target for homophobic ridicule. Jack and Ennis are a brave challenge to the stereotyped image of homosexuals in mainstream films, their relations to their families and to each other truthful and beautifully captured.