Brokeback Mountain is that rare thing, a big Hollywood weeper with a beautiful ache at its center. It’s a modern-age Western that turns into a quietly revolutionary love story. In 1963, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), a couple of dirt-poor ranch hands, take a job guarding a flock of sheep on Brokeback Mountain, a pristine jutting vista nestled in the lush Wyoming wilderness. Ennis, a crusty, taciturn loner with a scowl that might have been carved into his pale face, and Jack, an amateur rodeo rider who has held on to his optimistic boyishness, are youthful anachronisms, relics of the fading days of the Great Plains culture. But they’re still cowboys to the core; they’ve fallen into this life because it feeds something in them.

To keep the coyotes away, Jack is assigned to sleep near the flock, but mostly the two men have hours, days, and weeks on their hands. They jump on horses to guide the sheep across meadows and rivers; they sit around a campfire, heating canned beans and swapping stories and a bottle of whiskey. Then, one night, when it’s too cold for either one of them to sleep outside, they do something that the old movie cowboys never did: They wrap their bodies in a rough embrace and, without a hint of seduction, they have sex, an act that’s as shocking to them as it is to us.

Because it feels right, they do it again as the days go by. Yet what is it, exactly, they’re feeling, this urgent seizure of loneliness and affection and desire? Ennis and Jack, who’ve been raised in a world where to be ”queer” is not to be a man (and is therefore unthinkable), can’t grasp the feeling that’s come over them because they literally don’t have the words for it. In their very innocence, they are, in an odd way, a bit like the ancient Greeks, who saw homosexuality as an exalted expression of male friendship. Ennis and Jack call each other ”friend,” and they mean it, but their bond evolves into a delicate, suspended romance, and Brokeback Mountain becomes their Eden, the craggy cowboy paradise from which they are destined to fall.

Adapted from Annie Proulx’s brilliant 1997 short story, Brokeback Mountain was directed by Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) from a script by the venerable Western novelist and screenwriter Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove) and Diana Ossana, and together they have coaxed Proulx’s anecdotal, through-the-years narrative into a wistful epic of longing and loss. Lee stages the picture with an enraptured tranquillity that lets each emotion shine through. At times, it’s a bit too tranquil, especially in the episodic second half, but when Brokeback Mountain takes off, it soars.

Ennis and Jack drift into their separate lives, each caught in a fractured marriage with children, but they reunite over the years, going on fishing trips where no fishing gets done, sharing, however fleetingly, the connection they can barely speak of. They’re products — victims — of a closeted culture, yet secrecy and repression work on them in a special way. They’re men who have fallen in love without quite realizing that’s what’s happened to them, and the glory of Brokeback Mountain is that in tracing their fates, treating their passion as something unprecedented — a force so powerful it can scarcely be named — the movie makes love seem as ineffable as it really is.

Jack, a shade more comfortable with his nature, talks of getting a ranch together, but Ennis will have none of it: Stung by childhood memories of a rancher who lived with a man and got bashed for it, he fears — he knows — that exposure could kill them. In the classic Westerns, the cowboys were often men of few words, but Heath Ledger speaks in tones so low and gruff and raspy his words just about scrape ground, and he doesn’t string a whole lot of those words together. Ennis’ inexpressiveness is truly …inexpressive, yet ironically eloquent for that very reason, as tiny glimmers of soul escape his rigid facade. Ennis says nothing he doesn’t mean; he’s incapable of guile, yet he erupts in tantrums — the anger of a man who can’t be what he is and doesn’t realize the quandary is eating him alive. Ledger, with beady eyes and pursed lips, gives a performance of extraordinary, gnarled tenderness. Gyllenhaal is touching in a different way, his puppy eyes widening with hope, then turning inward and forlorn.

As the movie goes on, Ennis, penniless and alone, becomes a shard of a man, nurturing a lost dream. Brokeback Mountain has a luscious doomed tenor that, at times, makes it feel like Edith Wharton with Stetsons. It’s far from being a message movie, yet if you tear up in the magnificent final scene, with its haunting slow waltz of comfort and regret, it’s worth noting what, exactly, you’re reacting to: a love that has been made to knuckle under to society’s design. In an age when the fight over gay marriage still rages, Brokeback Mountain, the tale of two men who are scarcely even allowed to imagine being together, asks, through the very purity with which it touches us: When it comes to love, what sort of world do we really want?

2006 Oscar Nominations: Best Picture; Best Actor (Heath Ledger); Best Supporting Actor (Jake Gyllenhaal); Best Supporting Actress (Michelle Williams); Best Director (Ang Lee); Best Adapted Screenplay (Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana); Best Cinematography; Best Original Score (Gustavo Santaolalla)

Brokeback Mountain
  • Movie
  • 134 minutes