"I'm no queer."
Thus do Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist explain away the night they've just spent keeping each other warm on Brokeback Mountain, where the men are men and the sheep are...well, the sheep are a bit of an afterthought as Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) pursue their very own definition of "pardners." Hired to keep the coyotes away from a thousand-head herd of woolies, these two Wyoming ranch hands find a higher power in God's Country, and it ain't got nuthin' to do with religion. Or maybe it does. Isolated from the world down below, where their particular brand of love dare not speak its name, Ennis and Jack seem so in tune with nature as to be blessed ' instead of Adam and Eve, Adam and Steve.
A man-to-man weepie that's being touted as a landmark in the history of film, Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain may have taken on more weight that it can comfortably carry, moseying across the screen with a dust devil of Sunday think-pieces trailing along behind it. What might have been a simple love story about two men who can't find a place to put all the feelings they have for each other has become a bellwether, a lightning rod, a punching bag, "the gay cowboy movie." And that's a pity, because minus the hype and the hoopla it's a lovely piece of work, as fresh and clear as a mountain stream. Lee, who's turned reticence into a cinematic style, never overplays the hand he's been dealt, and what he's been dealt is a pair of deuces.
That's how Annie Proulx, in the short story that Brokeback Mountain's based on, described Ennis and Jack, "a pair of deuces going nowhere." And if the movie's Ennis and Jack look more like a pair of kings going straight to the top (Ledger and Gyllenhaal being mighty easy on the eyes), Lee has nevertheless managed to steer clear of the Hollywood traps that were laid for him, mostly by having the actors keep their mouths shut. Borrowing from Proulx whenever they could, scriptwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana have chosen their words very carefully. In fact, during the opening scene, when Ennis and Jack stand around waiting to apply for a job, neither of them utters a word. But Jack, while using the rear-view mirror of his pickup truck to shave, casts an eye in Ennis' direction.
Later, while Ennis is scrubbing himself clean, Jack will force himself to look away. Of the two, Jack's the gregarious one, a rodeo rider who can't stay on a bull long enough to make a real go of it. And Gyllenhaal gives him just enough flash to let us know that Jack's got more on his mind than babysitting sheep. As for Ennis, he's one of those guys who would walk all the way through hell before complaining about the heat ' a closed book that has no cover to judge it by. And Ledger does such a great job of burying Ennis' emotions that you're startled when they come pouring out of him. Straight actors are routinely praised for playing men who love men, and although these two appear to have covered their bets with starring roles in Jarhead and Casanova, they can hardly be accused of holding anything back.
Nor can the movie. Ennis and Jack's initial coupling, though lacking the "Gun's goin' off" line that Proulx wrote for Ennis, is downright animalistic, the absence of bare skin seeming discreet rather than cautious. The movie's at its best up on Brokeback Mountain, where the land meets the sky and the emotions are as big as the whole outdoors. Proulx, in prose as supple as a worn saddlebag, left her mark on the local landscape ' "pines massed in slabs of somber malachite," that kind of thing. And cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, faced with one of Mother Nature's finest pieces of handiwork, manages to find the cinematic equivalent, bleaching out some of the color and allowing the hills and valleys, the rocks and clouds, to speak for themselves.
Nothing lasts forever, and the pair of deuces is eventually forced to join the rest of the deck, which hasn't been shuffled while they were gone. "Well, see you around, I guess," Ennis says to Jack as they part, stoical as ever. Then, once Jack's safely out of sight, he falls to his knees, retches violently and bawls like a baby. Wyoming was no place for a gay man in the 1960s. Hell, judging by what happened to Matthew Shepard, it was no place for a gay man in the 1990s. Then again, Ennis and Jack aren't exactly gay. They're bisexual, a term that can refer to any number of living arrangements. Ennis, spooked by a horrendous gay-bashing he was made privy to as a child, fully intends to settle down, get married, have kids. Eventually, Jack does the same.
But they've been to the mountaintop. And unfortunately, when they descend, the movie descends with them, loses its focus and turns episodic. Ennis takes a series of dead-end jobs. Jack hooks up with the daughter of a farm-machinery dealer. And when they can spare the time, they go on fishing trips together that don't seem to involve a whole lot of fishing. Proulx didn't shy away from the trail of tears that Ennis and Jack leave in their wake ' the lonely wives, the busted marriages, the fatherless children. But Lee seems to consider it fully half the story, which maybe it should be, westerns having traditionally shunted the women and children off to the side. The thing is, he puts a lot of balls into the air, then has trouble juggling them. And as the years roll by, the actors' makeup jobs look more and more absurd.
But there's always the possibility that Ennis and Jack will sneak away again, and that's both enough to keep them going and enough to keep us going. Their conversations, if that's what you want to call them, are a symphony of wide-open spaces, and you gradually realize that space is the key to the movie ' all that land and nowhere to hide. Of course, hiding isn't exactly what gays and lesbians are up to today. And Brokeback Mountain, which can't imagine a happy ending for its star-crossed lovers, may strike some people as yesterday's news ' before Stonewall, before AIDS, before "Will and Grace," before "Queer as Folk," before gay rodeos. But the message it so powerfully brings home is that, no matter what the circumstances, love will find a way. It may not be able to move mountains, but it can sink roots all the way to China.