Brokeback Mountain is always going to be derisively referred to as 'that gay cowboy movie' by the people who are predisposed towards disliking it, but even though people aren't used to male homosexuality being portrayed on the big screen in a non-comic way, it's really not a very revolutionary film - repressed love has been dealt with many times in cinema. But because it's two cowboys, the supposed embodiment of everything that is masculine, that are engaged in a passionate relationship, it takes on a novelty value and possesses a shock factor for those people who have been living under a rock and haven't realised that men have been bumming each other since the dawn of man. But thankfully the more worldly wise can just ignore the novelty and the supposed shock and enjoy a very good film.
The opening part of the film is a tad slow (but not excessively so) and sees Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) working on Brokeback Mountain, looking after a farmer's livestock. There are no overt signs of their relationship developing into something more than it is, but all the time there are little hints. There are the sidelong glances; the look Ennis gives as he looks up at the mountain, perhaps contemplating his colleague; and the small smiles of satisfaction Ennis gives when Jack horses about. But rather than develop slowly over time, things explode one night in their tent. The sex scene that follows isn't loving or tender, it's violent. It's maybe years of frustration and repression being released. But the morning after, quite understandably, is awkward, and Ennis rides off to think about what happened. One of the first things he sees is a sheep that has been ripped apart by a coyote. The visual encapsulates his situation. All the time he's been a sheep he doesn't stand out but now his true nature has been revealed and violent repercussions are a definite possibility. (And later Ennis tells the story of how his dad showed him the dead body of a gay man when he was a kid. The man was beaten and then had his penis ripped off.)
When Ennis and Jack next talk, Ennis declares that he's not queer (Jack says he isn't either). And they're both right. Calling someone queer is a way of saying someone's less of a man and less of a human being because they're attracted to their own sex. Such an assertion is ridiculous, but unfortunately a lot of people still think that way either out of ignorance or insecurity as regards their own sexuality. But Ennis and Jack, whatever their sexual orientation, are just men.
And after the two finish on Brokeback Mountain they return to their lives. For Ennis this means getting married (Jack gets married also). But although both have a crack at leading 'normal' lives they can't change how they feel and meet again. And the scene where they're reunited is a powerful one. The two guys meet outside Ennis' place, but seeing as they're out in the open, neither knows how to respond. But when they retreat to a corner where they think no one can see, they're watched by Ennis' wife. For them it's a moment of joy, but for her it's devastating her world is shattered. And it's to the film's credit that it treats Ennis' wife so evenly. She doesn't become a bitter, vindictive woman, but at the same time she doesn't become a victim. The film never takes the easy way out.
But eventually the marriage deteriorates to the point that the couple get divorced (by the end Ennis only sleeps with his wife to procreate). And after that you have an excellent scene where the estranged family have Thanksgiving dinner. It's so awkward because Ennis' ex has a new husband. Everything is bubbling under the surface. And sure enough, in the kitchen, Ennis' ex admits that she knows about his homosexuality and a scuffle ensues.
But Jack has his own domestic hell to deal with, too. His father-in-law shows him no respect and interrupts their dinner to put a football game on the television for Jack's son to watch. "We don't eat with our eyes," he says. "You want your son to grow up to be a man, don't you?" But Jack asserts himself and shows the stupid old geezer who the real man of the house is.
However, as much as the two guys would rather be with each other than their loathsome relatives, they have to make do with monthly 'fishing' trips. Only here do they experience genuine contentment. But eventually even these meetings sour. They just aren't enough. And thusly the relationship between Ennis and Jack eventually falls apart.
One of the film's final sequences sees Ennis, after Jack's death (and possible murder), visit Jack's parents. They're a wonderful bunch of scenes, which pick at all the different character's emotions. Mr Twist takes a couple of jabs at Ennis, hinting that Jack had a new 'friend' in a spiteful bid to hurt his guest, while Mrs Twist compassionately lets Ennis take a look around Jack's room. There Ennis finds a couple of shirts which he secretly hugs to his chest, and when he returns downstairs Mrs Twist gives him a bag to keep them in. It's a small act of tolerance and understanding, but one that means a lot for Ennis and the viewer.