Without pandering to tired old stereotypes, Brokeback Mountain depicts the complex and deep love between two masculine cowboys over the course of their lives. It’s set in the American West between 1963 and 1983. What makes the movie truly unique is that the story is not about gay men fighting against specific discrimination or wrongful acts that have happened against them, as other gay-related movie themes have often portrayed. This is a personal love story. And it’s a tragic love story, because we the audience witness firsthand how they have been conditioned by society, beginning as little boys, to treat their love as something shameful that is to be hidden. We see that these two men were not out protesting to change the world. They were not in court trying to avenge wrongful actions from employers. These two quiet-living people were trying to do what a homophobic society demanded of them in order to fit in: pretend that their love didn’t exist, and the high cost this lie demanded upon many lives. To drive home the point, the audience learns that one of them never forgot childhood memories of a man who was murdered because he was gay and his recollections of the lack of sympathy about this man’s violent death. Secretly (and not so secretly to those closest to them) they suffered all of their lives.
Whether intentional or not, the film does not demand that the two leading men self-define their relationship (or their sexuality) so that the audience can then comfortably detach in order to judge them. As British reviewer Matthew E. Crossnaught pondered in relation to the movie’s two masculine characters and their complicated relationship: “How many married men, like me, have had at least one time [with another man], or have known or suspected such secrets about those that we love?” Once the film began to become popular with audiences and more theatres began to show it, the conservative right began turning up their assault on the movie in an attempt to discourage its acceptance and sympathetic storyline.