Jake Gyllanhaal and Heath Ledger in "Brokeback Mountain"

EDGEat20: What Did We Think of 'Brokeback Mountain?'

David Foucher READ TIME: 5 MIN.

Editor's note: When EDGE critic David Foucher wrote in December, 2005 that "Brokeback Mountain" was the most important gay film in a decade, who knew it would be the only important gay film of the decade? Perhaps that homophobia that kept the film from winning the Best Picture Oscar the following year remains pervasive in Hollywood. The only major gay Hollywood film in recent times was 2022's "Bros," Billy Eichner's clever contemporary rom-com that was a box office dud, despite being a critics' darling.

This past year, "Brokeback" director Ang Lee addressed the controversy of his film losing Best Picture to "Crash," despite winning Best Director and Best Script. "Back then, ['Brokeback Mountain'] had a ceiling. We got a lot of support – up to that much," he told Deadline. "It has that feeling. I wasn't holding a grudge or anything. It's just how they were," Lee said of the Academy at the time. He described the moment when Best Picture was announced. "I got my award, which was [second to] last to the big one, and I was walking off the stage, they called me down, and said, stay here. That's your mark. Everybody assumes you will win, so stay at that mark," Lee said. "Right next to the stage was the curtain. The next was Best Picture. Stay here, just stay here. I saw Jack Nicholson, his profile, he opened the envelope, and I go, 'Oh my god, oh my god.' It took like 10 seconds before he announced, and then he went, 'Crash.'"

Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllanhaal in "Brokeback Mountain"

Published on December 16, 2005

"Brokeback Mountain" is certainly the most important gay film in a decade; it may also be the bravest. That statement is made with no overt intention to applaud performances which, while unconventional, should in no way malign the careers of Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. They are superb in the roles of a ranch hand and a rodeo cowboy who unexpectedly fall in love and forge a lasting connection to each other; but they are actors first. We have seen this story of forbidden love before, and those themes of love and loss that make it mythical also, in the absence of mechanisms largely foreign to mainstream audiences such as AIDS or the gay community, are precisely what will have those audiences unwillingly squirming their way an inch closer to tolerance. It's a simple love story, little more; and its sparse approach to gay love is precisely that which makes it brilliant.

Ledger and Gyllenhaal play Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist -- two cowboys hired by a local rancher (Randy Quaid) to protect a flock of sheep on Brokeback Mountain over the summer of 1963. Their stated dreams of home ownership, marriage and children are slowly subverted, however, as the two forge a friendship, and then, in a sudden turn of events, a romance. The summer ends, and with it, ostensibly, their hidden affection for each other; but as the years pass and each pursues more traditional goals in life, they find their passion for each other a desperately needed, if increasingly difficult to protect, part of their lives.

It's a startlingly beautiful love story that happens to play out between two men representing perhaps the most masculine stereotype that this country has ever invented. the odds against Ennis and Jack being free to love each other are, at least to Ennis, insurmountably high. But as the movie unflinchingly postulates, love, once planted, will grow and reach for the light despite any odds; were this a heterosexual love story, the hearts of romance movie aficionados would warm with each subsequent chomp of popcorn.

Jake Gyllanhaal and Anne Hathaway in "Brokeback Mountain"

Alas, about a third of the way into the film Ennis and Jack enjoy a graphic, sexual encounter in their tent, and all over the country that popcorn freezes midway between the butter bucket and its suddenly slack destination, and the gay rights discussion leaps invariably forward. Such is the power of "Brokeback Mountain," wherein passionate embraces between two men are themselves embraced within a dramatic structure that affords them all the special attention of a single sheep in a flock of thousands -- an allegory played out in the film when two flocks are accidentally merged and must be segregated by the colors painted on their backs.

The performances by Gyllenhall and Ledger are compelling, particularly the more difficult role portrayed by Ledger, who turns in perhaps the most vociferously muted characterization in years. Supporting cast members Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway offer a desperately needed balance as the wives of Ennis and Jack; these women are the two individuals most harmed by a society where intolerance is indoctrinated, and infractions disciplined via the court of vigilante justice.

The pace of the film is deliberately slow, and frankly, were gay America truly its targeted audience, the film might fail to impress. Our community is not shocked by Ledger and Gyllenhaal sucking face in a pup tent; we're titillated by it, but in fact we're bombarded by gratuitous sexuality in our media on a daily basis. In fact, the LGBTQ+ community may find the story quite methodical in its pacing, and apart from postulating that cowboy life proceeds at this lethargic speed, may misconstrue intent as simply art. Not so: Ang Lee is at the helm.

It requires a director known for subtlety to deliver so subtle a film; Lee permits the story its own acceleration, and, instead of attempting to fluff out Annie Prouix's 30-page story with artificial dialogue or plot maneuverings, offers space: panoramic vistas against which this eloquently sad tale might unfold, and sufficient breathing expanse for those initially uncomfortable with the subject matter to term up to its universal appeal. "Brokeback Mountain" is definitively not analogous to an activist with a megaphone, nor is it a gay movie set within territory unfamiliar to those outside the LGBTQ+ community in an attempt to offer a measure of distance between its mainstream demographic and its subject matter. It encroaches directly into the masculine paradigm of the Mid-West, and its weapon of choice is the axiom of love.

by David Foucher , EDGE Publisher

David Foucher is the CEO of the EDGE Media Network and Pride Labs LLC, is a member of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalist Association, and is accredited with the Online Society of Film Critics. David lives with his daughter in Dedham MA.

This story is part of our special report: "EDGE 20th Anniversary". Want to read more? Here's the full list.

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