Ang Lee has made a superb, spare Western. The two stars, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, did a fine job – Ledger, in particular, deserves every award they give for his Ennis Del Mar. The rest of the cast was excellent, and excellently chosen. The filming – sets, locations, cinematography – are what Lee does best.
There has, of course, been some controversy about a "gay cowboy" movie. Part of the motivation for the movie was, no doubt, to take the iconic man's man figure of the cowboy and queer it, including a Matthew Shepard-like twist. Beyond the high concept, though, is still a story of two realistic men, who go beyond the rough sociological categories that we all need to use most of the time.
I wrote a couple of weeks ago on Michelle Wolkomir's interesting book Be Not Deceived: The Sacred and Sexual Struggles of Gay and Ex-Gay Christian Men. Wolkomir reported that the key factor for most of the ex-gay men in the study was that they loved their wives and wanted to keep the vows they had made to their wives and to God. The gay Christians, on the other hand, had decided that their sexual orientation made their marriages impossible, and therefore were working on reconciling a homosexual identity with conservative Christianity.
Applying this helpful distinction to the two well-realized men in "Brokeback Mountain," I reached this conclusion: Jack was gay; Ennis was not. Jack was always attracted to men, and never stopped seeking men, Ennis among them. Ennis, on the other hand, did love his wife and daughters, and wanted to be with them. He also loved Jack. Not men in general, just Jack. He did not reconcile his two loves, and there really was no way he could. This is what makes the film a tragedy.
But "Brokeback Mountain" is not simply a movie about "gay cowboys." It is a tragedy about two men, one of whom is gay.