Ennis changes substantially in the 20 years between those two brown paper bags. When the film opens in 1963 Ennis is so badly damaged that he is like someone who has suffered abuse. Losing his parents young, forced to quit school, raised by elder siblings who abandon him as they get married, and conflicted about his sexual identity, he is so beaten down - so devoid of spark - that he walks in a slow shuffle with his head bent way forward, round shouldered. He can barely meet another person's eye and doesn't talk except to answer a question. Although he is only 19 years old his forehead is scrunched in a perpetual frown and his eyes are wary.
But Ennis is a powerful character: smart, intuitive and purposeful, with a great capacity for love. The choices he makes throughout his life require terrible compromises and preclude his having any kind of social or financial security, but he finds a safe path for himself and the man he loves in a world that's treacherous for them.
As the story opens the two teenagers Jack and Ennis meet while applying for a summer job. The foreman who sends them up the mountain to herd sheep for the summer decides that Jack (who is more experienced with sheep) should be the herder and Ennis the camp tender, so in effect, as they start their summer Jack plays the role of husband and Ennis the role of wife. Jack acts a bit like a parody of a husband. He barks, "No more beans!" as he's heading off to work one morning, and when Ennis is late for supper one day, Jack gripes, "Where the hell you been? I've been up with the sheep all day hungry as hell!"
Ennis repositions their roles in a manner that better suits each of them: at Ennis's suggestion they switch and Jack takes the wife role. (In the short story the film is based on, their sexual relationship begins the night after they switch roles; in the film, it's a bit later.) Jack had already started to treat Ennis with maternal affection: he dabs a wound, shows concern for Ennis's childhood privation, praises his skill at shooting, and plays the clown to cheer him up.
One night Jack shares his whiskey with Ennis and Ennis speaks freely for the first time - perhaps the first time in his life. Jack says, "Friend, that's more than you've said in two weeks" and Ennis replies, "Hell, that's the most I spoke in a year." Ennis's expression after he says that tells it all: he tries to smile, but can't, and instead looks a little wistful and a little ashamed; he has admitted a deep secret about his damaged, lonely life.
The first time they make love (the night after brief, drunken coupling), Jack pulls Ennis's head to his breast and kisses his hair before rolling on top of him. The brief scene is heart-wrenchingly tender and also wonderfully erotic, and that's all we get to see of their love affair that summer. It's frustrating for the audience to have such a powerful, delightful love story revert to other plot lines, just as the relationship is fleeting and frustrating for Ennis and Jack.
When the summer ends and they part, it's not clear why Jack waits four years before he contacts Ennis. Ennis has no idea where Jack is and so is unable to contact him. He believes that Jack is angry because Ennis sucker-punched him just before they parted. But while Ennis has little hope that he will ever see Jack again, he seems to have done some thinking about how they can be together if Jack ever does get in touch.
When Ennis's wife Alma shows Ennis the postcard that arrives unexpectedly from Jack, she asks if Jack worked with Ennis. Without missing a beat Ennis lies, "Nope, Jack he rodeos mostly. We was fishin' buddies." He then prepares a series of other lies. He has a story concocted to explain Jack's unsociable behavior: "He's from Texas." He tells her they may stay up drinking and talking all night. When Jack arrives Ennis has foreseen Alma's delaying tactic of asking him to bring back cigarettes, and has some ready for her.
The connection between the two men is epic. In the short story, Annie Proulx describes their first meeting after four years like this: "They seized each other by the shoulders, hugged mightily, squeezing the breath out of each other, saying son of a bitch, son of a bitch; then, and as easily as the right key turns the lock tumblers, their mouths came together... pressing chest and groin and thigh and leg together, treading on each other's toes until they pulled apart to breathe and Ennis, not big on endearments, said what he said to his horses and daughters, "Little darlin." [Jack's] shaking hand grazed Ennis's hand, electrical current snapped between them. ...From the vibration of the floorboard on which they both stood Ennis could feel how hard Jack was shaking."
The night of their reunion, lying together in a motel bed, Jack tells Ennis that he red-lined it all the way to their meeting and asks if Ennis missed him. Ennis is unable to do more than mumble incoherently but he presses his thumb to his eye (a gesture he makes only when he is extremely emotional and trying to explain himself); the expression that flies across his face, unseen by Jack, is part embarrassed grimace and part wry smile: it exposes the depth of his feelings over those four years.
The next day Ennis tells Jack his plan for how they can be together: fishing or hunting trips, deep in the backwoods, on an infrequent basis. Ennis must have planned it long before he lied to Alma about being fishing buddies, and Ennis's plan (unlike Jack's plans) is workable. It is a compromise designed to meet his family obligations and allow him to be with Jack, but it's a sad compromise: it means that he and Jack can never spend enough time together, and it requires (as we learn much later) that he work casual jobs that he can quit to spend time with Jack, so he is never able to adequately support his family.
Eventually Ennis and Alma agree mutually to give up on their marriage. Ennis is stoic while his divorce decree is read until the judge says that he must pay $125 a month child support for each child until they turn 18. Then Ennis's eyes well with tears: he realizes that there is no freedom for him in divorce. He has written a note to Jack telling him of the divorce and Jack makes the 14 hour drive to see him, hoping that they can finally start their life together, but Ennis pretends it is all a mistake and sends him away. At a subsequent meeting he tells Jack that the child support obligation means he can't just quit jobs anymore - getting together is even more difficult than when he was married.
Ennis is stoic about everything in his hard life except losing Jack. The two times he faces the prospect of losing Jack he is so affected that he literally falls to his knees. The first time, when Jack drives off after their summer together, Ennis collapses in an alley with dry heaves and uncontrollable crying. During their last moments together, when Jack says "I wish I knew how to quit you," Ennis's knees buckle and he falls in anguish, trying alternately to beat Jack away and cling to him.
The healing of Ennis is a function of his sexual awakening. At the start of the film he has a fiancee he has apparently barely spoken to (given that he says he hasn’t spoken hardly at all in the last year); later, when a waitress picks him up, we see how he might have drifted into that relationship. Before he met Jack, it seems that Ennis must have lived in a state of cognitive dissonance over his sexuality that made him utterly incapable of dealing with people on a social level. That dissonance never fully goes away.
Scarred as a child by seeing a lynched homosexual, Ennis can't admit to himself that he's gay. In their final meeting he blames Jack for his condition: "Why don't you just let me be. It's because of you, Jack, that I'm like this. I'm nuthin. I'm nowhere." But Ennis is wrong about himself. We are shown the great erotic charge between the two men, Ennis's lack of interest in his wife and girlfriend, and Ennis's physical breakdowns at the prospect of losing Jack. In the short story Ennis tells Jack that during the four years they were apart "I never had no thoughts a doin it with another guy," but adds, "except I sure wrang it out a hundred times thinkin about you."
If Jack is the sexual initiator in their relationship, Ennis is the orchestrator: when Jack was supposed to go sleep with the sheep, he always did; it is Ennis who neglects his duty and stays at the camp, precipitating their first encounter. When Jack goes to Ennis after four years, it is Ennis who first pushes Jack up against the wall to kiss him. It is Ennis who has planned how they can carry on their affair. And it is Ennis who, as Jack describes it, keeps Jack on a "short fuckin' leash."
In describing their characters, director Ang Lee told Jake Gyllenhaal that Jack and Ennis are water and milk. By this I think he meant that Jack is clear and Ennis is opaque. Jack is comfortable in his sexual orientation. He is optimistic. He's upfront about his feelings and openly affectionate. Ennis is the opposite: unreadable. For 20 years he didn't tell Jack that he had to quit his jobs to make time to see him; nor did he let him see, until their very last meeting, the power of his feelings.
Proulx writes, "What Jack remembered and craved in a way he could neither help nor understand was the time that distant summer on Brokeback when Ennis had come up behind him and pulled him close, the silent embrace satisfying some shared and sexless hunger. ...Later, that dozy embrace solidified in his memory as the single moment of artless, charmed happiness in their separate and difficult lives. Nothing marred it, even the knowledge that Ennis would not then embrace him face to face because he did not want to see or feel that it was Jack he held. And maybe, he thought, they'd never got much farther than that. Let be, let be."
After their final week together (we learn later), Jack drives to his parents' ranch and tells them that he is going to leave his wife and move to the ranch with a friend from Texas, just as he used to tell them that Ennis would move there with him. Jack has tried but been unable to tell Ennis about his new boyfriend. It seems to be a result of that relationship that Jack's sexuality is exposed in Texas and he is murdered.
Jack's death occurs just as Ennis is freed of his family obligations. In the final scene of the film Ennis is living in a trailer in a secluded spot. His beloved daughter, now 19, has come to tell Ennis that she is getting married (and as with Ennis's brother and sister, marriage is effectively abandonment). Since his other daughter was born directly after the first, we realize that both children are 18 and so Ennis owes no more child support. Ennis is finally free to be with Jack, but Jack is dead.
Ennis is grieving Jack at the end of the movie, but his spirit is no longer broken. He even takes some pride of ownership in his little, underfurnished trailer, putting numbers on his mail box and stepping back to appreciate how they look. In his grief he builds a sort-of shrine to Jack in his closet, made of the two shirts that he carried away from Jack's parents' house, and when he adjusts the shirts and the postcard of Brokeback Mountain that he has hung there, he says, "Jack, I swear." In the short story, Proulx intends this to mean that Ennis is perhaps finally ready to make a commitment to Jack. She writes, "Jack, I swear-" he said, though Jack had never asked him to swear anything and was himself not the swearing kind.
The short story by E. Annie Proulx was published in the October 13, 1997 New Yorker and is available in the "Complete New Yorker" DVD set as well as in book form.