A ranch hand, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) meets rodeo cowboy Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) while working as sheep herders in the mountains of Wyoming during the summer of 1963. During their time together they fall in love and have sex. Yet, it is a love that is never acknowledged between them as being such. It is as Ennis puts it, “a one-shot deal going on.”
“You know I ain't queer,” he tells Jack just to make sure he understands.
Jack’s reply, “Neither am I.”
It is under this dark and ominous cloud that these men must find a way to share their love, in whatever way possible and still try to fit into what society views as being normal Jack knows he is gay without admitting it. We experience their joy when they are together. We feel their loneliness when they are apart. When four years have passed since their summer on the mountain, Ennis anxiously awaits a first visit by Jack. He chain smokes and chugs on beer trying to stay calm, unable to hide his feelings. It is also the first time that his wife, Alma (Michelle Williams), begins to realize there is more to the relationship than meets the eye.
The cast is as superb as the direction. I have seen Heath Ledger in several films, most of them instantly forgettable so I was totally unprepared and shocked by the depth of emotion he brings to Ennis here. And he does it not by being over the top, but with a great deal of subtlety and nuance. Ennis is a man of few words, but Ledger tells us everything we need to know about him without a tremendous amount of dialogue.
Gyllenhaal is every bit as good as Jack Twist. Unlike Ennis, Jack Twist is a man of many words, but he is also a man who never gives up on his dream of someday living the life he wants to, and sharing it with the person he loves the most.
In supporting roles, both Michelle Williams as Alma and Anne Hathaway as Jack’s wife Lureen are excellent also. We suspect that Lureen’s marriage to Jack is as much a marriage of convenience for her as it is for him. She doesn’t have much screen time, but she makes the most of it. If her roles in the straight to DVD film Havoc and Brokeback are any indication, her days of being thought of as the Princess in the Princess Diaries films will soon be forgotten. Regrettably, I had not seen any of Michelle Williams work before Brokeback but I wish I had. She is very deserving of her Academy Award nomination for her work here.
There will always be those who say that much of the recognition Brokeback is receiving has more to do with its subject matter than with the quality of the film itself. Nothing could be more wrong. Yes, the subject matter may be controversial to some, but the truth is there is there is no reason why it should be.
Although things have changed quite a bit since 1963 there are still way too many who fear gays as if they were the devil, the boogeyman, and should all carry the last name of Nasty as Alma calls Jack at one point. In the week before I saw Brokeback Mountain, a man walked into a gay bar in Massachusetts and began assaulting the patrons with a hatchet and a gun. In Roanoke Virginia five years ago, Ronald Edward Gay walked into the Backstreet Café and began shooting, simply because he wanted to kill homosexuals. Scotty Joe Weaver was tortured mercilessly, and then murdered just for being gay.
If the day ever comes, and whether or not it is in my lifetime, that a person can love someone of their own gender and walk through a mall, a parking lot, or an amusement park hand in hand without receiving so much as a glance, then Brokeback Mountain may no longer be controversial. But it’ll still be a great film, and when you’re a great film you know I have no choice but to give you an overwhelming A+.