I first read Annie Proulx's story "Brokeback Mountain" in "Close Range," her collection of Wyoming stories. I reread it when I heard that the film was coming out and thought again what I'd felt the first time: having written a love story, she'd forgotten to give Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar any characterizations, any personalities, any qualities that might differentiate one from the other or even help us empathize with their frightened, furtive love. The story, as she gives it to us in skeletal, almost outline form, is that Jack and Ennis meet when they're hired as young cowpokes in 1963 to shepherd sheep on Brokeback Mountain for the summer. One night, in the tent and high on liquor, they fuck for the first time. "But I'm not queer," says Ennis. Of course not. Except that Jack is the love of his life at a time when gay love was absolutely forbidden. One of them stays in Wyoming, the other goes to Texas. Over the years they lie to their spouses and meet to go 'fishing' a few times a year; that's as far as they can carry their love. One of them dies, twenty year later; the other survives. End of story.
But director Ang Lee's screenplay writers are Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, and McMurtry certainly, in his body of work, has created some of the most memorable characters in American fiction; and Lee himself in his earlier films has used the screen to show us human beings in three dimensions. To a certain extent - and with the help of an astounding performance by Heath Ledger as Ennis - we can at least feel the pain, if not the love that lies so desperately close to the surface but cannot emerge.
McMurtry and Ossana have filled in many of the blanks left by Proulx; they've invented whole episodes, they've given both Jack and Ennis believable marriages, with all the tensions, angst, lies and ultimate failures that destroyed them visible on screen. The men scribble postcards to each other setting up their dates, and they live only for those 'fishing' trips. What McMurtry and Ossana haven't given us, though, is even a moment of truly expressed love or tenderness. It's as though the sexual content of the relationship is all that matters to them, because it's all we see.
Having said that, let me add that this is a fine film by any standard you choose, because it takes itself seriously and trusts its actors. Ledger in particular gives one of the great performances of this or any other year. He is a man so closed in that he can barely open his jaw when he talks; his words come out reluctantly, as though squeezed through his teeth one by one. His suspicious eyes are never quite shut and never quite open; the world to him is an untrustworthy place and he will not be caught unawares. Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack is more open; he is the one who tries to force things along. He dreams of making a life by ranching together with Ennis; when that is impossible he dreams of Ennis moving to Texas so they can be closer to each other. That too will not happen. The film begins in 1963 and ends almost twenty years later; two lives have tried to find a measure of happiness in an unforgiving world, and failed. Even today the film is by no means dated; Teena Brandon was murdered in 1993 and Matthew Shepard in 1998. Will America change? Do you believe in Santa Claus?