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Out West

Ang Lee continues to astonish. In 1995, when his best-known film was Eat Drink Man Woman, set in his native Taiwan, the producers of Sense and Sensibility tapped him to direct their picture: an act of perception, of courage, for which all of us owe them thanks. Lee proceeded—incredibly—to make the best of the Jane Austen films. He then went on to make five more pictures, among which were two ultra-American ones, The Ice Storm, about Connecticut suburbanites, and Ride With the Devil, about the Civil War. 

Both of those films, whatever their other qualities, were made with societal comprehension. The fact that Lee was educated in theater and film at American universities must of course have much to do with his American ease. Now he shows it again in Brokeback Mountain, which deals with the American West in the twentieth century, and now we owe even more thanks to the producers who launched him on his unique career. (One of those producers worked on this new picture.)

The screenplay by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, based on a story by Annie Proulx, is about two cowboys who are lovers. In 1963 in Wyoming, two ranch hands named Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist are hired to spend the winter tending a thousand sheep up on Brokeback Mountain. (Shepherds though they are, through much of the film they call each other "cowboy," and we do see them later with cattle.) Ennis and Jack had not known each other previously, and they don't spend a lot of time together now. Ennis sleeps somewhere off near the sheep, and Jack bunks in a pup tent. One inclement night, however, they share the tent. There has not been the slightest hint of physical attraction between them, nor is there now as they bed down together. During the night, however, they find themselves—the phrase is apt—having sex.

In the morning they are their customary laconic selves as they go about their jobs, but they are both marked for life—by love. They have sex together again up in the mountains. Later on, through the years, they continue to meet as often as they can, even though in time both of them marry. The film traces their torment when separated, their happiness at reunions, and their near-pride in their private selves. Their marriages are not blissful—Ennis's wife indeed has seen the two men kissing—but they seem to accept marital trouble as part of the world's harassment of their truth.

The delicacy and pain and almost unbearable joy of the pair, though given to us through the actors, began with Lee, I believe—his vision of Ennis and Jack. He apparently sees their relationship as double. One part is the basic human lot, their immersion in a general current of emotional need that seems to flood around all men and women, that looks for reification, for person and place, in one or another sort of gender relationship. The second part is more specific: the morning after their first experience, Ennis and Jack virtually decide that they must be in love. They specify to each other that they are not "queer," but the condition that allows them to be themselves without shame is to believe that they are in love. This is a matter far from fakery. They are as truly in love as two people can be, but they are grateful for it because this spiritual union licenses them to continue their occasional beddings, and helps to justify each man to himself.

Their story does not finish as they might have wished: it couldn't, given the world in which they live. But their relationship from beginning to end has a finespun texture that is, I'd guess, the result of Lee's vision. His treatment of their love is so affirmed yet gentle that it seems, more than the story, the purpose for which he made the film.

The landscape in which most of it takes place is majestic, thrilling. It was actually shot in the Canadian Rockies, and the cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto, presents the scenic marvels to us like resplendent gifts. The interweaving of the grand landscape with the intimate story has a peculiar synesthetic effect: it almost transmutes into music, Beethoven perhaps, in which great chords shape the cosmos through which a poignant lyrical theme winds.

Brokeback Mountain does not contain the slightest suggestion that its purpose is to chronicle a case or a social problem. (It has provoked a blizzard of articles on the subject of cowboy homosexuality, most of them paying little attention to the film's art.) It simply treasures two human beings who, unlikely as we may have thought it for these men, find themselves fixed in a discomfiting yet thorough passion. They inhabit a world that vaunts macho masculinity; nonetheless they seem secretly fortified by their fate.

The two leading actors are superb. Merely to remember their performances is to be moved again. Ennis is played by Heath Ledger, an Australian who has mastered western accent and bearing. He gives Ennis a solidity through which his new experience shivers like a crack through a rock. (An extrinsic fact to whet appetite: Ledger has just appeared in a film as Casanova.) It seems possible that, even allowing for the messiness of almost any acting career, Ledger may be on his way to the heights. Jack is Jake Gyllenhaal, who, in an odd way, has been slipping quietly into prominence. His performances in Proof and Jarhead hardly went unnoticed, but his Jack makes us realize that we have been watching the emergence of something more than a usable young leading man. As Jack, he creates a dogged sensitivity, a man who has not lived by emotional finesse but now finds himself capable of it and will not relinquish it.

Lee's part in these performances? In the diary that Emma Thompson kept while making Sense and Sensibility, she wrote: "I am constantly astounded by Ang—his taste is consummate. It sometimes takes a while to work out exactly what he wants but it's always something subtler." It seems highly likely that Ledger and Gyllenhaal could say the same. So in all the tumult about this film, the eruption of its subject into wide attention and the consequent revelations about cowboys' lives in the past, let us—without forgetting the American sources of the screenplay—acknowledge the anomaly that the director is Chinese. Where his mind and imagination will take Lee next I do not yet know, but I certainly want to follow.