This film doesn’t just deal with the love of the two main characters for each other; it also deals with the love of family and friends. Starting in 1963, when homosexuality was never discussed, and ending in the early 1980s, at around the time AIDS was becoming a well-known disease, the topic of sexual orientation is rarely mentioned due to the stiflingly conservative, narrow-minded milieu in which the characters live. Even toward the end of the film, when homosexuality is accepted in many circles, the small towns in Wyoming and Texas are still, in many ways, stuck in 1963.
Heath Ledger was truly remarkable as Ennis Del Mar, a man who has never learned to show emotion – with the notable exception being anger. He is so locked within himself, afraid to ask for what he wants, afraid even to ask HIMSELF what he wants, that he merely exists; he only comes to life on Brokeback Mountain. Ledger is so good that I truly believed – and was thoroughly exasperated with – his character; he lives in immense fear of the truth being revealed (with some reason, given his memory of the time his father took him to see the battered corpse of an alleged gay man); he can’t express love, kindness, or friendship; he can’t imagine a world or a life outside the narrow, dusty confines of rural Wyoming.
Gyllenhaal, as Jack Twist, is the one with whom I sympathized. He knows what he wants, and whom he loves (though neither man uses the word “love” toward the other). He admits that he and his wife don’t love each other, and he wants to live with Ennis, who refuses to entertain the thought. Unlike Ennis, who doesn’t feel much emotion toward his daughters, Jack is very close to his own son. Jack is thwarted by Ennis’ inability to communicate, and by the love he feels for Ennis that keeps him near Wyoming. Clearly, Jack would be far better off if he left Ennis and moved to a more liberal environment, but the viewer knows that, just as in real life, Jack will not leave.
The two actors do an amazing job aging approximately twenty years; I’m not speaking of the makeup, but of the body language. Ledger, towards the end of the film, moves with the stiff motions you would expect from a man who’d been a cowboy for his entire adult life. Gyllenhaal’s motions are also slower, though his life has been one of greater comfort (thanks to his marriage to a rich woman).
This is a real triumph of film language. Kudos to all involved.