By Harry Forbes

Catholic News Service

NEW YORK (CNS)—”Brokeback Mountain” (Focus), the much publicized “gay cowboy love story” adapted from a New Yorker magazine piece by Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Proulx, arrives at last, and the film itself—a serious contemplation of loneliness and connection—belies the glib description.

While it is the story of an intimate relationship, more to the point it’s the relationship of two emotionally scarred souls. Ranch hands Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) share a sheepherding assignment on a mountain in Signal, Wyo., in 1963. Ennis is a man of few words; Jack is somewhat more open.

Their friendship gradually grows despite Ennis’ taciturn manner. At first, it’s only Jack who sleeps in the camp near the sheep (with Ennis ensconced down the mountain), but come to realize it is more practicable to guard the sheep in tandem.

Ennis resolutely insists he’ll sleep outdoors, but the cold drives him into Jack’s tent, where the two awkwardly, then roughly, have sex. Incidentally, that scene—short and with the men mostly clothed—is the only onscreen gay sexual encounter in the film.

In the morning, both are too embarrassed to talk about what has transpired, but a bond has formed, and we are led to understand that the relationship has deepened. Later, some outdoor wrestling is observed by their boss, the unsympathetic rancher Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid), who watches them with a knowing eye.

At the end of the season, they come down from the mountain, and dismissing what happened on the mountain as a “one-shot deal,” go their separate ways. Ennis is engaged to Alma (Michelle Williams, Ledger’s real-life girlfriend). But we see him crumple in despair as soon as he’s alone. The first human connection he’s had is coming to an end.

Jack, for his part, makes a tentative attempt to pick up an Ennis-like cowboy in a bar, but eventually meets former prom queen Lureen (Anne Hathaway). Both men marry and have children.

Time goes by, and Jack sends a postcard to Ennis telling him he’s coming to town.

The air is rife with anticipation as Ennis waits for the reunion. When Jack finally drives up, the unexpressive Ennis can barely contain his excitement, and rushes out to meet him.

They embrace passionately, not realizing that Alma is sadly viewing the interaction from behind the screen door. She says nothing, but understands all.

On the trip, Jack proposes that they chuck their families and buy a ranch, but Ennis—who as a child witnessed the aftermath of a hate-crime murder of two rancher neighbors who had lived together—can’t bring himself to do it.

Thereafter, Ennis and Jack initiate meeting several times a year for “fishing” trips where they can be alone together. Lureen, for her part, senses the importance of these trips to her husband, but remains engrossed in her own business.

As the Catholic Church makes a distinction between homosexual orientation and activity, Ennis and Jack’s continuing physical relationship is morally problematic.

The adulterous nature of their affair is another hot-button issue. But the pain Jack and Ennis cause their families is not whitewashed. (The women are played with tremendous sympathy, not as shrill harridans.) It’s the emotional honesty of the story overall, and the portrayal of an unresolved relationship—which, by the way, ends in tragedy—that seems paramount.

Director Ang Lee tells the story with a sure sense of time and place, and presents the narrative in a way that is more palatable than would have been thought possible. Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana’s screenplay uses virtually every scrap of information in Proulx’s story, which won a National Magazine Award, and expands it while remaining utterly true to the source.

The performances are superb. Australian Ledger may be the one to beat at Oscar time, as his repressed manly stoicism masking great vulnerability is heartbreaking, and his Western accent sounds wonderfully authentic. Gyllenhaal is no less accomplished as the more demonstrative of the pair, while Williams and Hathaway (the latter, a far cry from “The Princess Diaries,” giving her most mature work to date) are very fine.

Looked at from the point of view of the need for love which everyone feels but few people can articulate, the plight of these guys is easy to understand while their way of dealing with it is likely to surprise and shock an audience.

Except for the initial sex scene, and brief bedroom encounters between the men and their (bare breasted) wives, there’s no sexually related nudity. Some outdoor shots of the men washing themselves and skinny-dipping are side-view, long-shot or out-of-focus images.

While the actions taken by Ennis and Jack cannot be endorsed, the universal themes of love and loss ring true.

The film contains tacit approval of same-sex relationships, adultery, two brief sex scenes without nudity, partial and shadowy brief nudity elsewhere, other implied sexual situations, profanity, rough and crude expressions, alcohol and brief drug use, brief violent images, a gruesome description of a murder, and some domestic violence. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is L—limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R—restricted.

Forbes is director of the Office for Film & Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.