The magnificence of Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain (which opens Friday, Dec. 16, at the Egyptian and Harvard Exit) settles on us slowly. Some audiences, primed for a "gay cowboy movie," may have a low startle point, like Jack Twist's skittish horse—braced for they don't know what, they're jumpy. But Lee takes his time, letting us get acclimated to this high Wyoming solitude, letting us get to know this wary, hardscrabble pair of strangers: Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger), hired to tend over 1,000 head of sheep in the summer of 1963.
Lee is so patient and his screenwriters (Larry McMurtry and Diana Osanna, sticking close to Annie Proulx's wrenching short story) have drawn this "pair of deuces goin' nowhere" in such spare, rich detail that imperceptibly we relax into the action, until we suddenly find ourselves in a great blindsiding love story. Westerns, the lasting ones, have at their backbone the codes of a country that was raw and new when they were made. Though it reaches into the 1980s, Brokeback is about people who live where the rules are pretty much the same as they were 100 years ago. The film's power comes from its unblinking look at the cost, in desperation and denial, of living in this century by those rules.
The bedrock character of both these rough-sawn country kids comes out in their work: The magnetic rodeo competitor Jack almost has a bull rider's eight-second attention span, starting a little buckaroo dance at their lonesome camp out of sheer high spirits, but doing a piss-poor job of setting up a tent. He's also the first to bitch about their diet of beans, the weather, or his four-hour commute up and back to the herd on the high pasture. Ennis, monosyllabic, driven inside himself by a harsh, punishing upbringing, has the precepts of a stoic (or a Baptist): He won't allow Jack to shoot one of their herd for meat; instead, he brings down an elk with one careful shot. But Jack unlocks stories no one's ever asked Ennis about before, not even his sweetheart Alma (Michelle Williams, marvelous), who's waiting back in town. Gradually Ennis finds himself thawing, feeling downright companionable—until two men huddling inside a cold tent becomes something very different.
The effect on both men is galvanic, but like couples the world over, they handle a life-changing event by not talking about it—but not stopping, either. In Brokeback's isolation, they make the most of every free minute. Yet after we see their shirtless roughhousing from the perspective of a distant observer, their idyll suddenly feels dangerous.
Ennis knows firsthand the terrifying fate of a queer in God's country (which Lee reveals in a violent flashback), and he and Jack agree that this is a "one-shot thing." If only. What Ennis has here is the love of his life; everything else is an accommodation. Jack has found his partner, too, but he just doesn't have Ennis' ingrained sense of fidelity.
Down off Brokeback, in the bleak real world, each man is stunned by a gut-wrenching sense of loss upon parting. Yet Ennis dutifully marries sweet, soft-mouthed Alma and struggles to provide for two babies too soon. Rodeoing in Texas, Jack picks—or is picked by— Lureen (Anne Hathaway), who has a strong will and a daddy with money. Soon Jack's a father, too.
Four years later, however, Jack tracks Ennis down, and from the moment they lock together in a tooth-jarring, breath-squeezing clinch, nothing—and everything—has changed. Over the next 16 years, they manage more or less annual "fishing trips" together. They're the only times Ennis can get free from his patchy ranching jobs, yet they're never enough for Jack, hungry and increasingly well off.
Lee is unequaled at the delicate interplay between characters constrained by their society (The Wedding Banquet, Sense and Sensibility), and at the unruly tendrils of emotion that escape anyway. Brokeback's canvas gives him room for extremes: spectacular vistas and intimate moments that convey everything about each man's "real" relationship; Ennis' loving closeness to his two daughters; the cooling of Jack's marriage, even as his fortunes pick up.
Ironically, for a movie that turns the tenets of the Western inside out, Ledger's Ennis is the classic cowboy hero: laconic, skillful, enduring, a gray wolf who mates for life. The actor's body conveys what Ennis can't say: inchoate yearning, surrender, eruptions of rage at his impasse of a life. Ledger's specific gravity leaves the charismatic Gyllenhaal no choice but to seem like the lightweight of the piece, but in truth, these beautiful, equally matched actors complete each other, like their characters. Jack's tragedy is that, failing Ennis, he's willing to settle for less; Ennis' is that there is Jack and Brokeback and nothing else.