Annie Proulx’ short story, Brokeback Mountain, appeared unheralded in The New Yorker Magazine in 1997 and immediately became a modern classic–a brilliant, poetic love story between two cowboys in the western United States. (Begining in 1963, before the emergence of the broad-based gay rights movement earmarked by the Stonewall riots, the depiction of homophobia at that time seems not to have dated at all.) Nonjudgmental and sympathetic, Proulx’ story, romantic but never descending into the sentimental, showed the sadimpact of irrational homopohbia on the lives of two men who happen to be gay. That, as cowboys, they are iconic of all that is masculine America adds a decidedly deliberate level of irony.
Ang Lee’s film version, from a screenplay by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, is a faithful, if somewhat overblown adaptation of the story. True to Proulx’ tone, the film shows the development of the relationship between the two cowboys who are paired as seasonal sheepherders on a Wyoming ranch. Isolated in each other’s company high in the mountains, a connection, both emotional and sexual, gradually grows between Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis (Heath Ledger). "It’s a one shot thing," insists Ennis, "I ain’t no queer." "Me neither," replies Jack, "Nobody’s buisness but ours." Homophobia is demonstrably internalized by both men, though Jack is more accepting of his own undeniable desires.
At summer’s end, they part with powerful, if largely unexpressed, emotions–Jack to Texas where he marries into financial security, Ennis to small town Wyoming where he marries, has two kids and barely manages to support his family. After a delay of four years, the two reunite, going off together from time to time for mountain retreats that stretch over a period of twenty years. While Jack would like for them to make a life together, Ennis, even after divorcing his wife, cannot bring himself to live in an openly gay relationship.
In the opening sequences of the film, Lee takes the time to show the day-to-day life of the sheepherders, their work with the herd, their cooking, bathing, roughousing, drinking whiskey, sleeping in a tent. The quietly simmering sexual tension finally erupts between the two men, but Lee also shows the growing emotional attachment, largely visually through body language and fine acting, since these are men of few words and surely not ready to articulate profound and forbidden emotions. The mountain landscapes are fully utilized, both to establish a sense of place and for the sheer beauty in which this love blossoms.
But Lee does get bogged down in the exposition of the two marriages, which, while providing a context for exploring the prevalent homophobia, stretches out to a point where the impact of the love story is considerably thinned. It takes less time to read Proulx’ fifty-five page story than it takes to watch Lee’s two and a quarter hour film. Lee also edges closer to the sentimental than the drier Proulx, but not so far as to undermine the film.
Anchored by the performances of the two leads, the power of Brokeback Mountain is retained despite the film’s unneccesary bloat, convincing in its tale of love and the severe penalties imposed by societal homphobia.