Directed by Ang Lee, starring Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, Michelle Williams and Randy Quaid.
Ang Lee's 'Brokeback Mountain' has been tagged as a "gay cowboy movie" but that phrase only describes in the smallest part what this film is about. Based on the short story by E Annie Proulx, 'Brokeback Mountain' is the epic story of an impossible, unfinished love. That it is between two men is almost beside the point and, at one and the same time, the whole focus of the film.
In 1963 two young men - ranchhand Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) and rodeo cowboy Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal) - meet outside the office of a local rancher in Signal, Wyoming. Sent to herd sheep on Brokeback Mountain for the summer, they spend their time in isolation. Ennis is as taciturn as Jack is loquacious but one cold night all differences are put aside when they end up sharing a tent and, unexpectedly, become lovers. There's a great deal of confusion and denial, many fervent declarations of heterosexuality, but it's clear that the pair have managed to connect on a deeper level.
Nevertheless, at the summer's end they come back down the mountain and go their separate conventional ways. Ennis marries his fiancée Alma (Williams) and has two daughters. Jack moves to Texas, marries Lureen (Hathaway) and has a son. That's it. Until, after four years, Jack sends a postcard to say that he's passing through. An old fishing buddy, Ennis tells Alma, as he discovers an intense interest in fishing whenever Jack comes to town.
Set against the sweeping majestic landscapes of Wyoming and Texas, 'Brokeback Mountain' spans what sometimes seems like a long 20 years. Lingering direction from Ang Lee and, after the initial set-up, the film's episodic nature doesn't help the pacing issue but gifted cinematography from Rodrigo Prieto ('21 Grams', 'Frida') ensures that there's more than enough to feast the eyes on throughout.
There are sterling performances from the central foursome. Anne Hathaway ('The Princess Diaries') excels in her portrayal of Lureen's journey from cutie-pie to hard case while Michelle Williams ('Dawson's Creek') is a revelation, bottling all her pain and resentment over the years until she just can't take it anymore. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the flamboyant Jack with tenderness and hard-earned toughness but it is Heath Ledger's Ennis that is truly heartrending. His painfully internalised performance is epitomised by his clipped mutter, as if afraid too much will fall out if he opens his mouth any wider.
A plaintive soundtrack from Gustavo Santaolalla ('The Motorcycle Diaries', '21 Grams') echoes Jack and Ennis' bittersweet yearning and helps to ensure that this film will stay with you long after the credits roll. Not so much a "gay cowboy movie", then, as a story about a secret and forbidden romance between two people who have found love, but don't know what to do or how to deal with it. 'Brokeback Mountain' is, by any standards, a powerful and haunting film.