Photo by Kimberly French

At 55 vivid pages, Annie Proulx’s wonderful New Yorker short story, Brokeback Mountain, about a doomed love affair between two Wyoming cowboys, is practically a screenplay off the bat. Still, I couldn’t see this minimally told tale as a feature-length movie, let alone an Ang Lee movie that moseys along for 134 leisurely minutes. In fact, husband and wife screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana labored seven years to get the project off the ground, and given the story’s frankly carnal homosexual theme, it’s remarkable they got it made at all in an industry that prefers its gay movies gussied up in lifestyle, and no sex please.

You’d think Lee would steer clear of all things Western after his disastrous dabble with the form in his very odd 1999 bomb, Ride With the Devil. But notwithstanding its setting, home on the Texas-Wyoming range, Brokeback Mountain is no ordinary Western. If anything, the movie is a refutation of the form’s macho posturing — an old-fashioned romantic weepie whose protagonists happen to be two men, boldly played by two of Hollywood’s hottest young hetero studs. Over the course of a long Wyoming summer in 1963, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger), a freelance ranch hand, and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), a rodeo rider, are thrown together on a gig herding sheep. Behind them is space — the airy, lonely infinity of a Wyoming mountain, snowcapped and freezing even in August ­­— and time, long hours measured out by a lonely guitar, when nothing or anything can happen. After a night of spontaneous rough sex in a pup tent, the two grow so close in body and spirit that when the job ends and they have to part, the inexpressive Ennis slugs his lover without warning, drives off, then stops his truck for a dry heave in an alleyway.

Behind them too, and cementing their mutual attraction, is the shared experience of a dying world — not the movie-cowboy landscape of lone rangers riding stoically into sunsets, but the hand-to-mouth life of itinerant ranch hands, their livelihood squeezed as farms are sold off to real estate sharks — forcing them to abandon the outdoor work they love for cramped lives in small-town city apartments or trailers. It will be four years before Ennis and Jack meet again, and by then they have both married and fathered children — Ennis with his longtime sweetheart Alma (Michelle Williams) and Jack with rodeo queen Lureen, portrayed as best she can by a woefully miscast Anne Hathaway, who looks as if she just breezed in from tea with Julie Andrews. Lee, who’s a far more feminine director than the ballsy Proulx is a writer, is instinctively drawn to domesticity and to women. Ensemble pieces come naturally to him, and if broadening the focus of Proulx’s tautly written two-hander gives Williams, who’s Ledger’s partner in real life, the chance to show what an intelligent young actress she is — when Alma stumbles on a sensational clinch between Jack and Ennis, Williams makes her silent anguish palpable — it also drains energy from the implacable male passion that courses through Ennis and Jack’s infrequent “fishing trips” in the wild. Still, Lee’s delicacy remains true to Proulx’s intent. He doesn’t force the gay issue or reduce the two men to desperate closet cases. Instead, he shows us the uncorking of a deep, inchoate affinity between two very different personalities: headlong, impulsive, puppyish Jack, a romantic who wants his lover to come away with him; and quick-tempered Ennis, whose fear of being outed is shaped by a childhood experience that showed him what happens to homosexuals in a hypermasculine society.

Brokeback Mountain is at once the gayest and the least gay Hollywood film I’ve seen, which is another way of saying that Lee has a knack for culling universality from the most specific identities. Since Jack is an open book, Gyllenhaal has the easy role, but I suspect it’s posters of Ledger that will be going up on walls all over West Hollywood, and far beyond. Rather than play down his instinctive animal masculinity, Ledger gathers it into a tight, tense ball of desire jockeying for space with rage and self-control, and in the process so individuates the hapless Ennis that we forget, until events crowd in to remind us, that we’re witnessing a homosexual love affair imperiled by a cruelly inhospitable culture.

What deepens the tragedy of Jack and Ennis is that the obstacles to their love are only partly cultural. The romantic lesson of Brokeback Mountain, as in Walk the Line and countless Woody Allen movies, is that the heart wants what it wants, and should have it regardless. You can argue with that, and I suspect that Ang Lee, whose subject has often been the saving pragmatism of family and friends, has his qualms. But there’s no arguing with the ashen, collapsed features of the man left behind with only a bloody shirt, a picture post card of his beloved Brokeback Mountain and the terrible knowledge that he never wanted what he wanted enough to pay the price of getting it.

BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN | Directed by ANG LEE | Written by LARRY McMURTRY and DIANA OSSANA, based on the short story by ANNIE PROULX | Produced by OSSANA and JAMES SCHAMUS | Released by Focus Features | At the Grove

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