Forget "gay cowboy movie." That's a careless, stupid label that doesn't begin to contain the emotional scope of Ang Lee's "Brokeback Mountain," adapted from Annie Proulx's 1997 short story. An adult alternative to inane comedies about "hooking up," "Brokeback" puts its faith in human passion as a potentially soul-altering experience. It's a masterly movie about the making and breaking of a fundamental human connection, the kind that sparks between any pair of star-crossed lovers, in any time or place that thwarts their union.
In a dusty parking lot out in the middle of nowhere, two young cowboys lounge in very separate spaces, sharing not a single word, while they wait to be interviewed for sheep-herding jobs up in the mountains. In 1963, it's the way young men were in rural communities: wary, shy, not given to immediately striking up conversation or friendship. But there's poignancy in that prolonged silence, in the flat, colorless landscape that surrounds these boys. It's like a Western version of an Andrew Wyeth frame, filled with aching isolation, loneliness.
Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) is wound tight as whipcord, a quiet loner who mostly lives inside his own head, hardly able to allow words to get free of his clamped-down control. There's a fadedness about this young-old man, as though he learned the art of camouflage very early on and never stops practicing it.
With his dark-eyed good looks, Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) is softer, more vivid, and he projects an optimistic innocence, not yet bruised by pretense and thwarted passion. If Ennis can't conceive of a future outside his emotional prison, Jack doesn't yet know what it is to be locked up for life.
Up in those paradisiacal Colorado mountains, the two boys, bundling for warmth in a tent, are suddenly overcome by lust - and it's not Hollywood coy or bloodless pornography. You feel the heat and exhilaration of their getting skin to skin, entering and being entered. More than sex, this coupling ("stemming the rose," as bossman Randy Quaid sneers) breaks through spiritual and emotional armor, opening each man to the other.
Bereft of mentoring fathers or friends, and practicing an anachronistic profession, these cowboys are orphans, citizens of nowhere. But up in the high country, Ennis and Jack find home in each other - as well as father, brother, friend, lover. A fragile, transient community of two, their Edenic coupling looses a passion that makes them fit only for each other, unsuited for the flatland roles they subsequently try to play.
When Jack and Ennis ride down from the mountains to go their separate ways, it's as though the heart literally goes out of them. Jack rides rodeo, then goes to stud, corralled by a well-off beauty who takes a shine to him (Anne Hathaway). Ennis ekes out a sparse living as a cowboy, and follows the prescribed path of marriage and parenthood. But they are hollow men, not quite there as husbands and fathers. In the wasteland of their everyday lives, the two men seem suspended, starving, and their affliction blights the blameless women who love them.
During their first reunion, years after Brokeback's revelation, the two men come together as though magnetized, in an embrace so powerful it's as though their bodies had been literally am-putated from each other. Ennis' wife (Michelle Williams) sees and turns away, her face gaunted by a loss she doesn't yet grasp.
"Brokeback Mountain" can no more be reduced to gay message movie than "Romeo and Juliet" can be read as a cautionary tale for oversexed teenagers. Lee's Western is a genuine American tragedy, charged by the tension between the grand, untamed landscapes of the West that call out to our largest, most authentic selves and the terrible strictures human community imposes on who we are and how we love.
That was always the mythic lure of the New World - and especially the West: the hope that it could be a second Eden, a green and fertile place where men and women could reinvent themselves, write brand-new monikers across wide, open spaces. The frontier seemed to promise space enough and time for every Adam to return to innocence. But the divided peaks of Brokeback Mountain stand as a cruel metaphor for the balked passion that poisons the lives of Jack and Ennis - and finally, for death's casual divorce.
Lee never stops for melodrama, choosing instead a slow, meditative style to unweave the cloth of love's labors lost. He's a director who takes his own good time to authenticate place and character, the dance of human desire. And in the superb Heath Ledger, Lee finds an actor who goes so deep into existential dark, you wonder if this could really be the callow fellow seen previously in "The Knight's Tale" and "The Brothers Grimm." Jake Gyllenhaal is nearly as good, and Michelle Williams quietly incarnates a nice girl for whom the fabric of reality suddenly tears, letting in the unimaginable.
In his classic 1956 Western "The Searchers," John Ford tells the tale of Ethan Edwards, quintessential Western outsider, a conflicted soul who makes the frontier safe for settling but is forever barred from community. There's an unforgettable moment in Ford's masterpiece when we see a woman, through a door, caressing the coat of her husband's brother - whom she once loved but from whom she had to part many years ago. Her graceful, discreet gesture signs a lifetime of yearning and banked emotion.
That classic moment comes to mind at the end of Lee's love story, when Ennis visits the boyhood home of his now-dead lover. There, in Jack's bedroom wardrobe, he finds his own bloodstained denim jacket, lost long ago after a fistfight put a period to the boys' first idyll on Brokeback Mountain. That faded jacket, a Proustian remembrance of things past, makes the shape of loss and despair all too human.
Film critic Kathleen Murphey can be reached at editor@capitol hilltimes.com.