--"But what about us?"
--"We'll always have Paris."
Bogart's line in Casablanca has burrowed itself into the lexicon of Americana. Its use denotes loss or longing and more often than not pains of the nostalgic. For Jack and Ennis, the two, uncertain cowboys of Ang Lee's latest film, Brokeback Mountain is their Paris.
Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) are a pair of Wyoming cowboys during the '60s. Both men are down on luck and money and neither has much going for them when they meet for the first time in the employment office of ranch owner Joe Aguirre, played by a puffy and aged Randy Quaid. The two men are given jobs guiding sheep up the side of Brokeback Mountain and told to watch over them while they set to pasture for the summer.
Neither man is excited in their work. Jack is embittered at first; instructed by Aguirre someone must sleep away from the camp every night in order to keep an eye on the sheep. Nevertheless, each morning and night Jack rides his horse into camp where he eats whatever Ennis has cooked and laments about his dream of one day returning to rodeo riding. Ennis on the other hand is aloof. He is content in the simple fact of being employed and eventually swaps duties with Jack, opting for the lonely nights with the sheep. Over breakfast and campside dinners, stories are shared and whiskey is drunk as the two try to make the best out of their otherwise senseless work. Late one night Ennis, too tired and drunk to make the trek back to his pup tent with the sheep, decides to sleep beside the tent by the fire. He awakes to the cold night and Jack's invitation to join him where the two become entwined in an impulsive and rugged copulation.
By morning, the men denounce the night's actions and create excuses: "You know I ain't queer," says Ennis. "Me neither," replies Jack. But as the days pass, their closeness grows and their relations continue until the summer is cut short by an approaching storm and Jack and Ennis must drive the sheep back to the farm. Now out of work, the two lovers return to their lives and try to maintain a sense of normalcy. But what can possibly be construed as normal for two apparently masculine and stoic men during the '60s? Normal lives are what have been dictated to them through tradition and society. Naturally, their options are limited and so both men wed and father children. For years, they fall out of contact until one day Ennis receives a postcard from Jack and the two rekindle their passion in the guise of a fishing trip.
Their short trysts are the tenderest moments of the film because this is the only time the men express the misery of each other's absence. Unfortunately these moments are few and far between. What fill the gaps are the superfluous happenings of each man's family life and how they are trying to cope. Jack has resorted to selling tractors for his father-in-law - a man who abhors him - and Ennis, the father of three, struggles to make ends meet. What the movie suggests to be more at the front of their minds is the battle all men face - the burden of raising a family and making money. When either appears conflicted or dispirited, the audience is left to wonder if it is due to their longed love or more immediate universal problems. Although we witness their eagerness to get together again, life seems to move on.
During one of their fishing trips, Jack suggests that the two of them run off together and find a ranch of their own. His solution is no surprise. Jack is the more aggressive of the two and he is also the hopeless romantic. Gyllenhaal's performance pins his character perfectly but too often he overshoots and Jack's moments of grief become the incessant whining of a spoiled child. Ennis, who understands the impossibility of two men living together, reacts differently. His tears, which come from frustration and uncertainty, are more real. Ledger's performance, usually trite and silly in past roles, is commanding in portraying not only a desperate man searching to find solace and closure but also one who cannot convince himself to take the first step in beginning that search.
Fans of Annie Proulx's short story will take comfort in the film's faithfulness to the text. Screenwriters McMurtry and Ossana have changed very little save some minor details and the addition of scenes that simply stretch the film to its necessary runtime. Most notable is the Hollywood makeover given to the story's main characters. Jack and Ennis are poster boy cowboys. They are handsome, mostly well groomed and fashioned in slightly stained, tight blue jeans - a horseshoe's toss from the buck toothed and soily creatures of Proulx's story. An added run-in between Ennis and a group of foul-mouthed bikers has been inserted to show his frustration and discomfort in the life he is living. But again, Ennis seems to be standing up to his family rather than fighting for some personified metaphor of Jack. And in the movie's final moments, the heartbreak and resolution of the story is more clearly captured and defined. Proulx often loses her readers in the swift brevity of her writing, but the film takes careful, deliberate steps to allow emotions to sink in and ultimately linger with the viewer.
It's difficult not to be swept away with the delicate manner through which Ang Lee tackles such a deeply layered subject. And while Jack and Ennis have been labeled by many as gay cowboys, and the film itself a love story, to put any sort of tag on this movie is nothing short of convenience. The story is about uncertainty with ones own individuality and how difficult it must be to live - or not live - a life that does not feel completely your own. The story of love is universal. It is the story of lost love that is unique. For Jack and Ennis, theirs lies on Brokeback Mountain.