Jack and Ennis... two young ranch hands, used to hard living and going nowhere fast, take jobs tending sheep on Brokeback Mountain one summer. What results of their partnership is not something that either of them expected, but their fall into lust and then love changes the course of their lives irrevocably. Their story has the power to change your life too.
It's easy to label this film as "the gay cowboy movie." Though the fact of their sexuality is what drives the plot, creating obstacles and heartbreak throughout Jack and Ennis's lives, it is not the central theme here. To box this story up as a tearjerker about marginalized minorities is a frustrating oversimplification, and more importantly, it is a serious misapprehension of the sheer scope of this film.
No, this film is about love, longing, and bitter regret. It is a universal affirmation that no matter how hard it is, love is the only thing that life is worth living for. It is both a plea and a warning to those who may realize this truth too late. This is a film that absolutely shattered me, but I came out of it with the knowledge that the only way to live is to love fearlessly and without hesitation. Years later, I still count this as one of the greatest lessons I've ever learned.
How some people could completely miss the point of the story is something that really bothered me for a long time, until I watched it with a certain friend of mine. She is, to put it bluntly, childishly naive and had never known romantic love. When the movie ended, she remarked rather lightly, "Oh it's so sad that they couldn't be together because they were gay." So perhaps it's necessary to have some life experience as a context for this story... and no movie, no matter how amazing, can teach you what true love feels like (however, anyone who has ever been in love already knows the pain of heartbreak, even if their hearts have yet to be broken).
Ang Lee is an artist, a maestro, a wizard in the way he creates this world for his characters. It is a world that is simultaneously intimate and desolately vast, and Lee doesn't miss a single detail. You don't just see the landscape, you feel the wind howling through your bones. This is all the more remarkable considering how foreign the ranch life in 1970's Wyoming must be to a man who grew up in a big city in Taiwan. Somehow he knows this place as if he'd lived there all along.
I suppose it helps that he had utter faith in his actors. I firmly believe that no two others could have done it - the chemistry between the two leads is electric. Jake Gyllenhaal is perfectly lovable as the boisterous yet sensitive Jack, buoyant and optimistic despite the many harsh blows that life has dealt him, and he deserves utmost praise. However, critics couldn't help but overlook him in the face of Heath Ledger's tour de force performance as Ennis Del Mar, a man whose emotions are so repressed that the weight of them is evident in every motion. The difference between the two performances is that Ledger's Ennis becomes a real person. He so completely submerges himself in the role that you no longer see Heath Ledger acting as Ennis, but Ennis come to life.
The supporting cast is no less impressive than the leads. Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway play the wives of Ennis and Jack respectively, whose own lives become lies through the deceit of their husbands. The story doesn't gloss over their anger and grief, and these very young actresses give performances that are far beyond their years. The actress who plays Jack's mother also stands out to me. In a pivotal scene near the end where so many questions are answered, and all these answers are conveyed between the lines, it's as if she and Ledger are speaking directly to your heart.
Finally, I highly recommend that you read the short story by Annie Proulx after seeing the film. You will be all the more impressed by how well Proulx's spare, honest prose was adapted to the big screen.