Annie Proulx's 1997 short story "Brokeback Mountain" is one of the great modern love stories: its chiseled-from-rock prose lodges in your memory forever. It's the story of two itinerant cowboys--Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), a part-time rodeo rider, and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger), a laconic ranch hand--who fall into a physical relationship in 1963 while herding sheep in the Wyoming mountains. Ennis, as terrified as he is overwhelmed by his feelings, insists that it's a one-shot thing. What both men discover, as the years pass and both marry and raise kids, is that the only vital thing in their lives is their brief, furtive, once-a-year meetings.
Director Ang Lee's movie, from a fine and faithful screenplay by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, has already been proclaimed a landmark, a watershed in mainstream movies, the first gay love story with A-list Hollywood stars. But the reason it feels like a breakthrough is that Lee has made it for the right reasons: he recognizes a heartbreaking love story when he sees one. Maybe because he's not an American, the Taiwanese-born director is neither afraid of the material nor impressed with himself for "daring" to make it. There's neither coyness nor self-importance in "Brokeback Mountain"--just close, compassionate observation, deeply committed perform-ances, a bone-deep feeling for hardscrabble Western lives. Few films have captured so acutely the desolation of frustrated, repressed passion.
The macho, inarticulate Ennis is the more conflicted of the two men, and Ledger's eloquent body language shows us a man imploding with rage, shame and yearnings he has no clue how to express. There's a startling moment after Jack drives off in his truck, their summer idyll on the mountain over. Suddenly alone, overcome, Ennis hides in an alleyway, heaving his guts, pounding his head against a wall. Ennis seems to shrink inside himself as he ages, rigid with paranoia, his speech so curt it's as if his own words tasted bad on his tongue. Gyllenhaal's Jack Twist is the pursuer, the one with a spring in his step. He dares to dream they could actually live life on their own terms, if they could just get out of Wyoming, go somewhere where openly loving a man might not get you killed.
Jack and Ennis aren't the only ones hurting; their wives and kids are collateral damage. The women's roles have been deftly fleshed out in the screenplay, and perfectly cast. Anne Hathaway is the rich, flirty Texan Lureen, who marries Jack and brings him into her father's farm-equipment business. Her cocky sparkle turns brittle and dry. Michelle Williams is touching as Ennis's neglected wife, Alma, who catches a glimpse of her husband kissing his friend with a hunger she never knew was in him--and chooses to say nothing.
"Brokeback Mountain" is in no rush. Its emotional impact builds slowly, its rhythms in tune with the countryside--the rugged grandeur of the mountains; the arid, bleak vistas of backwater Western towns, where the rooms seem as cramped as the sky is vast. Lee's movie isn't a Western, but it has much to say about the mindscape of the American West, where the myth of rugged individualism works only for those who don't break the rules, and love can suffocate in the wide-open spaces.