While I wish I could avoid jumping on the Brokeback Mountain bandwagon – when everybody and their sister starts raving about how great some movie is, I get skeptical – this film is so well-made, and contains such depth, that it's hard not to.
By now everybody knows about "The Gay Cowboy Movie", and you can't get much more high-concept than that. But Brokeback Mountain, for all its frankness about homosexuality, is subtle and restrained to a fault: at the end of the movie, as I walked out, I thought, Well, the acting was good, and the story bittersweet – but it was just too slow, too quiet, with almost zero emotional release. Yet my wife and I found ourselves talking about it hours later. It's a film that grows on you.
Ang Lee and his scenarists (famed Western novelist Larry McMurtry and writing partner Diana Ossana adapted Annie Proulx's short story) capture, in their hushed pacing, the spirit of their main character Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger), the barely verbal ranch hand who, during the summer of 1963, while tending sheep on the titular mountain, embarks upon a sexual relationship with his working partner, rodeo cowboy Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal).
The story follows these star-crossed lovers over the next two decades as they sneak off on "fishing trips" together every three months or so while raising families and maintaining a heterosexual front in order to survive the conservative cowboy life. And although much of the film explores the complex self-loathing of closeted homosexuals, the impression it leaves is a romantic yearning that almost everybody can relate to. (Call it Romeo and Julius, if you will.)
It almost doesn't matter that Ennis and Jack are both men. The secret isn't so much that they're gay – or at least Jack is; Ennis's actual sexual identity is one of the film's many wonderful ambiguities – but that they're merely in love with people they're not supposed to be with. If Jack were a black woman or a girl from the other side of the tracks, you'd have essentially the same story. Because of the universality of its themes, the film connects – pretty profoundly, to read some reviews – with anybody who has experienced the pain of falling in love with someone that, for whatever reason, they can never be with.
After the bizarre misstep that was The Hulk, Ang Lee is back in strong form. Cast and crew are excellent, and the locations (Alberta, Canada subbing for Wyoming) are breathtaking.
Gyllenhaal is fine as usual, but Ledger's performance is a revelation. Though I've always found him a serviceable actor, his work here (thanks in no small part to Lee's direction, I'm sure) reaches remarkable new levels. While Ennis may usually prefer to deal with his frustrations with his love and his sexuality by punching something, there is one extraordinary moment in which Ledger finally lets go emotionally and, rather than turning on the waterworks or howling in pain, he instead seals his eyes shut as though he has been blinded into helplessness. It's a unique acting choice that creates one of the most heart-wrenching scenes in American cinema that I can remember, and if it's one of only two or three times that the film releases itself from its coiled repression, it's still a transcendent few seconds.