Based on a short story by E. Annie Proulx (she of The Shipping News fame), screenwritten by Larry McMurtry (The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, “Lonesome Dove”) and directed by Ang Lee (The Ice Storm and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Brokeback arrives on the big screen with the sort of pedigree that all but guarantees serious Oscar consideration.
The laconic story concerns two ranch hands who, in 1963, take jobs tending sheep on a remote Wyoming ranch. Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) is the tight-lipped type, a quiet, unsophisticated, salt-of-the-earth guy. Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the more outspoken of the two, an energetic young cowboy who isn’t above riding rodeo on occasion. Ennis and Jack are hired to lead the massive flock of skinflint ranch owner Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid) into its summer grazing pastures. One of the men is required to stay with the flock all night, protecting it from predators, while the other sets up a basecamp and corrals supplies.
The long, lazy, lovingly photographed days of summer pass slowly into fall. One lonely, fateful, frost-bitten night, Ennis and Jake find themselves sharing a tent. In a drunken fit, Ennis and Jack end up doing what lonely cowboys have probably been doing for centuries. In the morning, Ennis stubbornly declares, “I ain’t queer.” “Neither am I,” affirms Jack. Despite such declarations, both men keep up the relationship, which becomes—by turns—ecstatic, bitter and deeply conflicted. With the coming of winter, the job up on Brokeback Mountain ends, and the two go their separate ways.
Here begins a classic tale of repression, secrecy and unfulfilled emotion. Both Ennis and Jack try to lead what they believe are “normal” lives. Ennis gets married to a plain Jane farm girl (Michelle Williams from “Dawson’s Creek”) and fathers a couple of kids. Jack drifts down to Texas, where he hooks up with the beautiful daughter (Princess Diaries’ Anne Hathaway) of a rich farm equipment salesman. Over the years, though their paths drift apart, Ennis and Jack try to keep up their relationship in secret, taking three or four “fishing trips” a year up to Brokeback Mountain.
As the ‘60s spin into the ‘70s, the personal lives of our protagonists slowly crumble. Ennis fills his life with a country music jukebox worth of poverty and divorce. Jack lives a life of quiet suburban boredom and lies. Although these two are clearly meant for each other, Ennis stubbornly refuses to follow Jack’s suggestion that they buy a ranch and run off together. This is, after all, the early ‘70s, and they are a couple of country boys. Open homosexuality really isn’t an option for either of them.
Though it is, on the surface, a romance, Brokeback Mountain isn’t exactly Gone with the Wind or Casablanca. There are certain similarities with those earlier unrequited love stories, but Brokeback is more of a drama about living your life with regret. The saddest thing about this three-hanky weeper is that these two men spend an entire lifetime afraid to admit what they want. Lives are wasted, people are hurt, children are scarred, all because Ennis and Jack are scared of society and—by extension—their own feelings. “If only” is a tough phrase to have on your tombstone, and this heartbreaking story etches it deep into both of our protagonists.
Director Ang Lee’s beauteous style mirrors the film’s melancholy message with poetic economy. The wide-open vistas of Wyoming, the cracked paint clapboards of small-town America: Lee takes them all in with a sad, windswept beauty. Only some cheap-looking makeup effects detract from the overall feel. It’s hard to follow characters through 30 years of their lives. By the end, Ledger and Gyllenhaal just look like a couple of young actors in desperate need of some moisturizer. But it’s a minor gripe for a film that so perfectly succeeds in its goals.
I can’t guarantee that Brokeback Mountain will change hearts and minds, but I can state fairly unequivocally that it is one of the best films of 2005.