Ang Lee’s much-honored film version of Anne Proulx’s extraordinary 1997 short story about the thwarted romance of two Wyoming ranch hands has been touted as a kind of gay cowboy movie. But it makes its strongest claims on our attention as an incisive and moving character drama in which a couple of cowboy types struggle with mutual passions that their background tells them are forbidden.
Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) are overwhelmed by a veritably ferocious physical attraction while manning an isolated sheep camp in the summer of 1963. Subsequently, both will have wives and children, but they continue their trysting via infrequent treks into the Wyoming wilderness.
The tragic love story that results is in part a protest against homophobia. But the most abiding concerns are with several varieties of emotional dishonesty that are deeply ingrained in the characters and their families—as well as in the society in which they find themselves. The screenplay adaptation (by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana) fleshes out this social dimension via bits of family drama that were only implicit in the original story.