It's not hard to predict how Ang Lee's controversial Brokeback Mountain will play in John Wayne country. This romantic tragedy about a pair of lean, wind-burned cowpokes who secretly live to poke each other flies in the face of everything that most people in Casper or Riverton or Laramie think about the West -- and about themselves. The versatile Lee, who's already directed popular movies set in China, suburban Connecticut and the troubled mind of the Hulk, among other places, might as well have loosed upon Wyoming a plague of locusts -- or some new, localized version of Lonesome Cowboys, Andy Warhol's cheesy 1968 farce in which a band of gay caballeros cavorted nude in the sagebrush while exchanging beauty tips.
Of course, Brokeback Mountain is a far different and more elevated piece of work, deriving as it does from a much-honored short story by Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Proulx (The Shipping News) and featuring, in the dual leads, two of Hollywood's most respected young stars, Heath Ledger (Casanova) and Jake Gyllenhaal (Jarhead). No obscure fleck of dust from the underground is this, but rather a bold greeting from the world of alternative lifestyles to the mainstream: Howdy, pardner; make room. Compared with Lee's rather graphic film, the coy evasions of the Tom Hanks/Denzel Washington AIDS movie Philadelphia seem positively quaint.
Like most Ang Lee films, Brokeback is too long by about a half-hour and too concerned with its own visual manners by about 300 percent. But the filmmaker's way with drama and his gift for getting the best from actors never waver. By the end, the doomed misadventures of Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) and Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal) get hold of our emotions no less firmly than the exploits of Butch and Sundance or, for that matter, Thelma and Louise.
Screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana take very few liberties with Proulx's keenly observed text, and Lee is obviously aware of the strongest element in her writing -- a faultless grasp of harsh terrain and dirty weather, the wide-open American West in its most dangerous and beautiful moods. Here, they are dramatically captured by cinematographer Diego Prieto. For whatever reasons, Brokeback was filmed not in Wyoming, where the story is set, but up in Alberta, British Columbia. The shift of actual scene is barely discernible, and Proulx's central irony remains intact: These laconic cowboys conduct their hardworking lives amid the vast splendor of the open range, but their souls are suffocating in the closet.
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When we meet them, in 1963, under a fleece-clouded sky in tiny Signal, Wyoming, Ennis is an orphaned ranch hand with few prospects, Jack a rodeo rider from Texas who's clearly never going to make the big time. Both of them give off the close-to-the-vest vibe of lonely men, and they barely exchange a glance when they're hired on by a hard-bitten rancher named Aguirre (bulky Randy Quaid) to tend his sheep for the summer on the majestic, craggy mountainside of the title. At first, Ennis and Jack cook their cans of beans on the fire and gulp their whiskey in near silence. But when lust suddenly strikes them like a bolt of lightning, Brokeback turns into their rough Eden. "I ain't queer," Ennis protests. "Me neither," Jack replies. To be sure, their lovemaking is rife not just with desperate wonderment at what's happening to them, but with a kind of shamed belligerence. Sometimes they smack each other around like a couple of Saturday-night drunks, drawing blood and leaving bruises.
From this startling early turn -- more transgressive than anything in any Hollywood movie of the past thirty years -- the story continues on for two anguished decades. Fearing detection and their own instincts, both men marry soon after their summer on Brokeback. Ennis's doe-eyed child bride, Alma (Michelle Williams), cleans house, bears children and takes odd jobs, clueless about her uncommunicative husband's urges right up to the moment when she glimpses Ennis and Jack kissing on the stairs to the apartment -- a prelude to the periodic "fishing trips" they are to take over the years. Jack weds Lureen Newsome (Anne Hathaway), the pretty daughter of a rich, nasty Texan. Lureen's creeping suspicions about Jack eventually harden her heart, and Hathaway's performance is a small thing of great beauty.
But it's Ledger who owns the screen here. Ennis's painful silences bespeak the denial of his true self even more profoundly than his lover's frustrated outbursts. "If you can't fix it, Jack, you gotta stand it," he says. In the end, these two gritty survivors can neither fix it nor stand it. But then, that's the condition of life that afflicts almost all of Annie Proulx's characters -- her lonely bronc-busters and hardscrabble ranchers and the foolish old man who dies in a blizzard a half-mile from home in her memorable story "The Half-Skinned Steer." If, in its groundbreaking assault on the mythology of the American West, Brokeback Mountain gets a lot of people into a furious lather, so be it. These days, all of us are challenged to reconsider what constitutes love and who defines fidelity, and neither Ang Lee's eloquence nor the daring of his two young stars can be easily dismissed.