Brokeback Mountain: Ang Lee’s Masterful Modernist Western, Starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal

“Brokeback Mountain,” Ang Lee’s modern Western, is an extremely subtle and touching love story about two cowboys, splendidly played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. A sweeping epic with the scope of George Stevens’ “Giant” and the unabashed romanticism of “Wuthering Heights,” “Brokeback Mountain” is at once a uniquely American and universal story, one that goes beyond the realm of queer romance or gay cowboy picture.

Set against the sweeping vistas of Wyoming and Texas, the film centers on a ranch-hand and a rodeo cowboy who meet in the summer of 1963 and unexpectedly forge a lifelong bond whose complexity, joy, and ultimately tragedy serve as a testament to the enduring power of love.

Lee has handled gay-themed satires (the delicious “Wedding Banquet”), violent Westerns (the ambitious but disappointing “Ride With the Devil”) and literary romances (the accomplished “Sense and Sensibility”), but he has never before treated all these elements as delicately as he does in “Brokeback Mountain,” his best work to date. It may be the first time that Lee shows such complete and commendable control over every aspect of his film, from the narrative to the mise-en-scene to the visual look and music.

Coming right after the failure of “The Hulk,” the misconceived comic strip, “Brokeback Mountain” redeems Lee’s reputation as a versatile director, one who continues to show impressive talent in depicting multi-nuanced relationships in various locales. Auteurist critics will have hard time to detect consistent themes or styles in the career of Lee, who hops effortlessly from genre to genre.

The movie is based on Pulitzer prize-winner Annie Proulx’s 1997 short story, “Brokeback Mountain,” first published in the New Yorker and later printed in her 1999 collection, “Close Range: Wyoming Stories.” For years, “Brokeback” was known in Hollywood as one of the “great unproduced” screenplays. Producers were simply afraid of its subject and strong emotions, which may explain why it took eight years for the story to reach the big screen.

It’s a pleasure to report that the screenwriters, Pulitzer Prize-winner Larry McMurtry and his writing partner Diana Ossana, have met the challenge of taking a spare, brief tale and have vastly expanded its scope while still maintaining its spirit.

Even so, as powerful as the source material is, it’s the direction, acting, and production values that give the movie shape and heart. “Brokeback Mountain” is one contemporary film that cannot be charged with being cynical or ironic. And though grounded in a specific historical era and locale, the movie has undeniable universal appeal. In many ways, it’s an old-fashioned saga about two individuals (who happen to be cowboys and gay) fighting to preserve their love against great odds.

“Brokeback” is set in the early 1960s, when cowboys couldn’t express their true desires if the latter deviated from the norm of heterosexual love. Hence, the film is as much about an impossible love and dangerous yearning as it is about the tragedy of living in a codified society that inhibits the free expression of love and sexuality.

Though the most “virile” and uniquely American genre, the Western has occasionally dealt with male camaraderie in a way that implied latent homosexuality. You may recall the homoerotic overtones in the relationships of such couples as John Wayne and Montgomery Clift in “Red River,” Gary Cooper and Lloyd Bridges in “High Noon,” Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea in “Ride the High Country,” and Rock Hudson and James Dean in “Giant.” (Latent homosexuality can also be found in the crime-gangster film, another “virile” genre).

In the hands of another director, “Brokeback” could have easily become a “queer” love story in both the popular and political senses of this term. However, Lee and his writers have succeeded in broadening the scope of a story that goes beyond homosexuality into the realm of any forbidden love that’s marked by pain and suffering. (For obvious reasons, the film’s tragic ending cannot be revealed).

Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) and Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal) meet one morning, in Signal, Wyoming while lining up for employment with local rancher Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid). Though the world into which Ennis and Jack have been born is beginning to show economic change, rigidity prevails when it comes to sexual politics and cultural norms.

At first, both men seem certain of their goals in life and place in the heartland: They set out to obtain steady work and income so that they can marry and raise a family. Yet, from the beginning, there are intimations that Ennis and Jack may yearn for something that they can’t articulate in words. When Aguirre hires them as sheepherders up on the majestic Brokeback Mountain, the duo begin to cultivate camaraderie that gradually evolves into deep intimacy.

We learn about bits and pieces about their pasts through sporadic but poignant details that are revealed in flashbacks. Ennis was raised by his brother and sister after their parents had died in a car crash, and he now plans to marry a woman named Alma. For his part, Jack recalls insensitive parents and work on the rodeo circuit.

To keep his herd safe, Aguirre places Ennis in the mountains, where he’s required to sleep outdoors with no fire, while Jake maintains a relatively more comfortable existence at his base camp with a tiny tent. One night, Ennis falls asleep by the fire, and since it’s freezing cold outside, Jack asks him to join him.

A simple, spontaneous gesture prompts a sexual encounter that shocks both men. The next day, each would rather dismiss or forget what has happened. However, as a result of this random encounter, the desires of both men begin to alter and affect their identities.

At the end of the summer, the two men part ways. Remaining in Wyoming, Ennis weds his sweetheart Alma (Michelle Williams), with whom he will have two daughters. Jack, in Texas, catches the eye of rodeo queen Lureen Newsome (Anne Hathaway), and their courtship leads to marriage, a son, and a job in his father-in-law’s business.

Years later, Alma brings Ennis a postcard from Jack, who is en route to visit Wyoming. Ennis waits expectantly for his friend, and when Jack arrives, it’s clear that the passage of time has only strengthened their attachment. Unbeknownst to Ennis, Alma spots him in a compromising position with Jack. From then on, things are never the same, and eventually leads to Ennis’ divorce.

The men’s passion keeps its fire, and their affection for each other continues to grow. Over the years, they contrive to spend time together back on Brokeback Mountain, despite the dangers involved in public exposure. Ennis recalls the bloody site of a gay man murdered by his neighbors, which he had witnessed as a boy with his father.

Struggling to keep their secret bond alive, Ennis and Jack meet up several times. When they are apart, they face the usual issues of commitment and trust. The relationship is far from being reciprocal or symmetrical. Jack, the more overt and open of the two, would like to establish a business and home with Ennis. Until that happens, he goes for fun to Mexico in trips that cause tension with Ennis.

Throughout, Lee draws on the strong tradition of the West, emphasizing the traits and feelings the characters have that derive directly from their particular background and a context where anything non-conformist is deemed deviant.

Approaching the text as an epic American story of the sweeping scope of “Giant,” Lee imbues it with his vision of space and attention to detail. “Brokeback” is not just a story about two men; it engulfs parents, wives, children, and communities. Indeed, the film’s most touching scenes come at the end, when Ennis visits Jack’s parents and then meets his grow-up daughter, Alma Jr., (Kate Mara).

“Brokeback” isn’t just a gay cowboy story but one that depicts the struggles and trials of being in love and keeping that love for decades, despite separation, distance, and family obligations. There’s a line in the film, “If you can’t fix it, you gotta stand it,” that applies to all the characters, not just Ennis and Jack. Lacking the freedom to be who they are doesn’t just affect Ennis and Jack but all the people in their lives.

Lee’s decision to go with a younger cast in a story that spans 20 years has paid off. He knows that actors in their twenties have the kind of innocence and freshness that can’t be fabricated by older pros. Beginning as youngsters, Ledger and Gyllenhaal age convincingly with the passage of time.

“Ennis” literally means “island,” and indeed, Ennis is a man who keeps to himself and is unable to access his emotions. Powerfully underplaying, Ledger brings an astonishing combination of vulnerability and strength to his role. Deep inside, Ennis has fears from a traumatic childhood experience and the awakening to his sexuality. He represses both desires and fears with a quiet, cool attitude, though occasionally there are bursts of anger and violence.

Lee shows how the landscape shapes both characters’ lives and fates. Jack and Ennis find each other in the idyllic Brokeback Mountain, a place that exists outside society and history. When forced to go back into the “real” world, they continue to yearn for Brokeback, which becomes a mythical place. They have enough of a taste of Brokeback to keep their routine lives going but also hope for revisiting that place.

The filmmakers have surrounded the lading men with fully developed secondary characters. The women in Ennis and Jack’s lives are given detailed attention, which adds to the story’s complexity. Both Alma and Lureen are not as substantial in the story as they are in the film. Take Lureen’s evolution, for example. For Lureen, everything’s great when she’s young, but when she turns grows older and bitter, her makeup gets thicker and her hair higher, a physical transformation that charts accurately the psychological changes in her character.

“Brokeback Mountain” is full of the mystery and ambiguity necessary for the convincing portraiture of any love story. However, watching a film like “Brokeback Mountain,” in which love never fully expresses itself and never really resolves itself is truly a heartbreaking experience.