Brokeback Mountain is based on Annie Proulx's 1997 short story about two cowboys in love, and it's not an easy work to translate. Literature never is, especially a story that deals with an American icon -- and with one of its most homoerotic subtexts, as the literary critic Leslie Fiedler pointed out more than half a century ago. But the director Ang Lee (Sense & Sensibility, The Ice Storm) has walked these lines before, and it's no surprise that he's done it again so well.
Proulx narrates her story largely in the same low-keyed vernacular we hear in conversations between Jack and Ennis, the men at the center of her tale: concise and unadorned, coolly anti-dramatic, and plaintively clumsy when the lovers struggle to express their feelings. (These men, who meet in 1963 Wyoming, don't have the vocabulary of introspection and sexual awareness that our culture has now.) Her few but essential descriptions of sex are frank without being graphic. And then, she'll escape into a moment of exquisite elegy, such as her climax, which is only an image, and yet indelibly poignant.
She tells Brokeback Mountain from the point of view of Ennis, the reticent partner. Love comes more easily to Jack, who's eager to own a ranch with Ennis so they can tame the land together. They're not unlike many couples in this regard, although something else entirely keeps them apart.
This is all crystal-clear in Lee's intelligent, deeply moving film. He doesn't try to imitate the tone of Proulx's twangy narration and dialogue. Instead, he hones the story's emotional content, and he keeps it simple: Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis del Mar (Heath Ledger) discover a mutual attraction one summer on a job herding sheep in Wyoming. That begins a difficult, lonely, tumescent affair that lasts 20 years, through marriage and kids for each, and across a continental divide when Jack returns home to Texas.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Larry McMurtry, along with Diana Ossana, adapted Proulx's story, and they've done it well. Their screenplay is almost unerringly faithful, taking dialogue in whole chunks from Proulx, and expanding seamlessly upon details and observations that pass by in the story with a mention. The ending is perfect: Lee asks us to remember a detail from early in his film without the insult of a flashback, and then he takes Proulx's heartbreaking image two steps further with splendid fidelity.
Lee builds his movie patiently around the drama's purest element: What will happen next to these quotidian people, and how will they find happiness in a community that doesn't permit them? Lee trades early on in blatant iconography: In the opening scene, Ennis poses against a wall, giving us his best James Dean. The visual landscape is often stunning, yet just slightly muted to keep it from becoming a postcard. (The juxtaposition of landscapes and postcards creates an interesting metaphor in the story, most notably at the end.) Proulx doesn't delve deeply or often into what it felt like for Jack and Ennis to live apart, despite their immutable longing. It's a strangely palpable absence in the story that allows Lee to provide moments of connecting tissue.
Brokeback Mountain is, I suppose, a message movie, although suggesting that love is love hardly seems like something that should need to be said. Lee and Proulx show us how the people around Jack and Ennis -- a work foreman (Randy Quaid), Ennis' wife (Michelle Williams), even Jack's mother -- react to their illicit union. But remember that this takes place at a time when such things were unthinkable. So for the most part, people simply don't think about it, or at least don't know what to think. Homophobia was less of a cultural discussion then because homosexuality was. Still, in childhood, Ennis gets a lesson: When bashers beat a local man to death, suspecting he's queer, Ennis' father takes him to see the mutilated body, just to be sure he understands the way of their world.
Ledger is so lean and handsome that it's easy to forget he has an almost baritone voice. He deepens it slightly here, affecting a whispered drawl, and his electrifying performance turns Ennis, the story's emotional center, into a stirring tragic hero. It's strong, focused, full-bodied acting, enhanced toward the end by makeup that ages him gently. Gyllenhaal, too, is quite good as the flashier Jack, who's willing to take a bigger chance on love (and who takes bigger chances with sex when he's away from Ennis for months or years at a time).
I usually go out of my way not to care what audiences think about movies. If people want to embrace crap, or ignore good work -- well, this is still America, I suppose. But I'm curious now to see what everyday moviegoers will think about Brokeback Mountain, which I saw at a press screening with five other writers, hardly a cross-section.
What will people do when Jack and Ennis find each other that first cold night in their tent? How will they react to the men's fortified kisses, or to horseplay that tumbles into an erotic bear hug or a bloody lovers' quarrel? Will they embrace the story's romantic tragedy? Will the frightened twentysomething teen-age boys in the audience squirm and guffaw? Will those boys even get dragged to the movie in the first place? Unlike Alexander, which flopped because it was bad, not because it was gay, Brokeback Mountain earns every sad and tender moment it offers. The question now is whether America can handle the truth in this story about a few good men.