Brokeback Mountain is based on a short story by Annie Proulx published in The New Yorker in 1997. It has been adapted for the screen by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana. Ang Lee, who has directed such emotionally literate films as Eat Drink Man Woman, Sense and Sensibility, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, shows us once again that he is up to the challenge of exploring the turmoil of individuals who yearn for a love that lasts. The director, who has a special talent for drawing out affecting performances, does so with Heath Ledger who plays a cowboy trying to keep a rein on his words and his emotions. The drama covers several decades beginning in the 1960s.
In Signal, Wyoming, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) land summer jobs working for a local rancher (Randy Quaid) as sheepherders on Brokeback Mountain. The two strangers have very different personalities: Jack is a talkative Texas cowboy who has done some rodeo riding. He's had a tough time convincing his father that he is a responsible young man. Ennis is very tight-lipped, but he eventually manages to share that he was raised by his brother and sister after their parents died in a car crash. He only completed one year of high school before having to go to work.
There's not much to do in the mountains except eat beans, smoke cigarettes, and drink whiskey. While one stays at the base camp and prepares their meals, the other rides to higher altitudes to be near the sheep and watch out for predators during the night. One evening Ennis sleeps by the fire in the base camp and Jack, seeing him shivering from the cold, asks him into the tent. The two reach out to each other in a sexual passion that surprises them both. In the morning, neither Ennis nor Jack is willing to talk about what happened between them. But they cannot stop, and their love deepens, though they know that in the West a homosexual relationship is hated and can mean death to those involved if practiced openly. Ennis has burned into his childhood memory the image of a man who was dragged to death for living alone on a ranch with another man. And so at the end of the summer, Ennis and Jack part.
Four years pass before they meet again. Jack has married a rodeo queen, Lureen (Anne Hathaway), in Texas and settled into a job working for her successful father. Ennis is married to Alma (Michelle Williams), and they have two daughters. When Jack arrives for a visit, the two men embrace and move to the side of the house for a passionate kiss. Alma sees them and is completely shocked, but she cannot bring herself to say anything either at that moment or over the coming years.
Ennis and Jack begin to see each other regularly for fishing trips on Brokeback Mountain. Doling out their love during just a few weeks a year is not enough for Jack. He suggests that they leave their wives and get a small ranch somewhere, but Ennis isn't willing to take the risk, frightened that they will be discovered.
Everything about this movie -- performances, photography, music, editing, pacing, and especially Ang Lee's direction — is pitch perfect. From the opening scene outside the rancher's office where the two cowboys wait to hear about work, Ennis slumping shyly behind his cowboy hat, Jack leaning against his truck with an almost brazen friendliness, to the heartbreaking scene when Ennis visits Jack's boyhood room, the storyline is pulled forward by a palpable and excruciating feeling of yearning. This is about more than sexual desire. Their story reveals the pain of hidden and split identities. These characters are incarnating the basic human needs for wholeness, fulfillment, and a true love who accepts them as they really are.
Both men struggle valiantly over the years to make their marriages, their children, and their work sources of meaning. This is another remarkable aspect of the film. There are no villains here; only a diverse group of people trying to get through their lives with as few scars as possible. We find ourselves emotionally engaged not only with the story of Jack and Ennis but also with the reactions of the people around them, who mirror the hatred, fear, ambivalence, lack of understanding, and mystery still surrounding homosexual relationships in our culture. We can't help but put ourselves into this story — and most viewers, we suspect, will identify with more than one character.
Brokeback Mountain is a love story that will evoke your compassion as you confront the deep ache of separation at the center of the story. It is also a cry for justice and acceptance of these lovers forced to keep secret an essential element of who they are through the long and lonely years. Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg was once asked, "How do I open my heart?" She replied, "Usually, it's broken open." This film will break your heart and open it.