Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback MountainBROKEBACK MOUNTAIN

In Ang Lee's agonizingly fine romantic western Brokeback Mountain, two taciturn young men - Ennis del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) - are hired, in the summer of 1963, to tend flocks of sheep on a Wyoming expanse. During the early days of their tenure, the men barely speak. Yet as the months pass, they form a solid friendship, and on one particularly cold night atop the mountain, Ennis and Jack share a bottle of whiskey and a sleeping bag, and - experiencing wordless, nearly aggressive desire - have sex. Despite the inevitability of the encounter, the sheer, naked hunger of the scene is startling, but a greater surprise comes some 20 minutes (and four years of screen time) later, in a scene so powerfully, emotionally true that - like much of Lee's transcendently moving work - it hits like a slap in the face.

After that first night together, Ennis and Jack fall into a tentative, yearning romance that neither understands or has the ability to verbalize; their relationship exists within a private, idyllic world of their own creation. Yet it's a world that has no place for two Wyoming cowboys in 1963, and once their summer together ends, the two return to their lives before Brokeback Mountain - Ennis marries his Wyoming sweetheart, Alma (Michelle Williams), and has two daughters; Jack, back in his native Texas, marries a rodeo rider, Lureen (Anne Hathaway), and accepts a job working for her father.

Then, one day in 1967, Ennis receives a postcard from Jack, who writes that he'll be stopping through town and would like to see him again. On the day of Jack's arrival, Ennis paces his apartment like a caged animal - his wife and children are blithely unaware of his restless energy - and downs beers to steady his nerves, and when Jack finally arrives, Ennis runs out the door to greet him. "Jack fucking Twist!" Ennis exclaims with unbridled joy, and he bounds down the stairs - two at a time - to greet him, eventually clutching Jack in a ferocious embrace. Yet in a moment that, quite understandably, makes the audience gasp, that embrace turns into a fiercely passionate kiss - the fervor of which shocks Ennis and Jack (and Alma, who accidentally witnesses the exchange) as much as it does us - and from that point on, the idyll of Brokeback Mountain, and Brokeback Mountain, is forever shattered.

The audience is right to be shocked by Ennis' and Jack's ardor for one another, not because they're two men, but because their passion feels credible and honest in a way that modern screen romances almost never do. There are exceptions, of course - recently, Before Sunset and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Lost in Translation made love feel appropriately wonderful and heartbreaking and strange - but, more often than not, romance in movies has become perfunctory to the point of pointlessness. Our screen heroes and heroines are provided with a lover but the relationships themselves are of no real consequence; even in works detailing ostensibly fiery romances, such as The Constant Gardener, we see the heat rather than feel it - the actors go through the romantic motions ably, but what's missing is the complexity, the ache, of true romance.

Ennis and Jack are unable to control their desires, and the glory and tragedy of Brokeback Mountain is that neither they nor audiences necessarily want them to; like all great, doomed screen romances, Ennis' and Jack's love (a word that neither man ever utters) is a force of nature, too powerful to be ignored yet, ultimately, too fragile to survive. Despite the emotional toll their relationship takes on Ennis' and Jack's wives and children - and the movie is subtly gut-wrenching in showing how the men's love, kept secret, makes them treat those who love them horribly - you want desperately for them to find happiness; Brokeback Mountain makes the ineffable mystery of romance come alive in a way that audiences might find themselves quite unprepared for. (As was to be expected, many in the audience greeted the men's initial romantic encounters with nervous titters; by the film's end, the chuckles were replaced by the sound of people sobbing into their handkerchiefs.)

Screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana have done a splendid job of adapting Annie Proulx's 1997 short story. Their script is a model of clarity and insight, stunningly assured about the reveal of exposition and passing time (the actions of the movie cover 20 years), and it manages the task of giving remarkable depth to fundamentally inarticulate characters; more than a half-dozen lines, like Ennis' assessment of the impossibility of their union - "If you can't fix it, Jack, you gotta stand it" - are hauntingly perfect.

And Ang Lee's direction is almost beyond praise. In the scenes atop Brokeback Mountain, his compositions are spectacularly vivid - the enormity of the men's passion is reflected in the bold, clear images - yet Lee is no less fascinated by the endless complexities in the human face; Lee allows the audience time to read every nuance, every fleeting moment of heartbreak and joy, within his actors' uniformly superb characterizations. (Lee is also a master of sound design - in a late-film sequence of her delivering bad news over the telephone, Lureen's emotional shifts are apparent through the subtlest of timbre changes; rather than having a soporific effect, Lee's use of silence keeps the audience alert.)

Jake Gyllenhaal's heartfelt sincerity and earnestness - combined with the actor's always-welcome natural humor - have rarely been put to better use than in Brokeback Mountain, and he plays Jack with a touching ease and candor that can give way, in an instant, to an almost primal agony. Gyllenhaal is spectacular, and he's matched by first-rate performances by Williams, Hathaway, and Linda Cardellini, who enact the bitterness and damaged nobility of their discarded women with devastating sadness and grace.

Yet there can be no denying that the movie belongs to Heath Ledger, giving the most unexpectedly astonishing performance of the year. Ennis speaks in a series of guttural grunts and half-sentences, swallowing emotions he is fundamentally unequipped to handle, and Ledger's drawling baritone imparts worlds of confusion and regret. Yet it's Ennis' tenderness that's impossible to shake off. When, with longing and exquisite sweetness, he falls into Jack's embrace on their second night together, or when the depth of Ennis' feelings causes him to collapse, in helpless sobs, against the man he continues to call "friend," Heath Ledger reveals himself to be an actor of extraordinary subtlety and skill, and Brokeback Mountain exhibits a staggering romantic grandeur - there may be no more moving sight in all of 2005's films than the shot of Ennis standing behind Jack at their campfire, rocking him in a gentle embrace, both knowing that their summer together is fated to end. The sublimely honest and painfully emotional Brokeback Mountain makes love come alive in a way you might have forgotten movies were capable of.

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