From the spare, elegant tinder of Annie Proulx's short story "Brokeback Mountain," director Ang Lee and screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana have created a quietly roaring fire. This is an epic love story told in few words; like Lee's masterful Jane Austen adaptation "Sense and Sensibility," it takes place in a world with a strict code of behavior, populated by people who cannot say what they really mean. Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) are cowboys in 1960s Wyoming. They are in love, and they cannot tell the world, or even each other.
The film spans some 20 years in the lives of Jack and Ennis, from their first and only summer together working as sheepherders on Brokeback Mountain to their pot-bellied middle age. Over the years, they each marry, raise children and meet every few years for fishing trips, during which little fishing takes place. Theirs is an electric connection, begun in a too-small tent on Brokeback and never fading. Both are all too aware of the price of anyone finding out. Ennis, the less articulate of the two, manages to frame his fears precisely: "This thing grabs hold of us again, in the wrong place, the wrong time, and we're dead."
Lee fills his film with long, waiting silences, punctuated by the endless horizontal lines of the Wyoming and Texas plains. And he gives his actors room to work small miracles of character. Ledger's performance is a revelation; nothing he has done on screen indicated that he was capable of this. He's a tightly wound man of few words and few visible emotions, which Ledger lets slip out like flickers from an ember: the nervous eagerness with which he waits at the window for a visit from Jack, the ever-so-slight softening of his voice when he speaks of his daughters ("my little girls"), the way he sets his jaw against impossible dreams of a happier future with Jack. "If you can't fix it," he says, "you've got to stand it."
Gyllenhaal's Jack is a more cheerful presence — he hasn't given up on his dreams. On a fishing trip, he tells Ennis of his plan for the two of them to get a ranch together, leaving the wives and children behind. "It'd be a sweet life," he says, and you know he believes it; Jack has an almost childlike twinkle to his eye and a stubborn refusal to acknowledge complications. The ranch never materializes, and their lives go on.
Michelle Williams does beautiful work as Ennis' young wife, Alma, a woman a little bit afraid of something she can't name. Finally, she sees evidence of what she fears — Ennis and Jack in a stairwell — and her face freezes: Her world has ended. Anne Hathaway has a sexy swagger as Jack's wife, Lureen, a practical woman who chooses not to notice her husband's distance. Kate Mara is touching as Ennis' grown daughter Alma Jr.; she speaks her father's language, of few words but quiet understanding. And Roberta Maxwell and Peter McRobbie, as Jack's parents, have a devastating scene late in the film: Like their house, they seem faded and worn, as if the sun was too much for them.
The emotional impact of "Brokeback Mountain" is all the more stunning for its quietness. Little that's dramatic happens onscreen, and its central image couldn't be more prosaic: two worn-soft western shirts, hanging together. But Lee, a master of yearning, has created a classic and heartbreaking love story that won't be easily forgotten. It stays with you after you've seen it, like a haunting strain of music; both love song and elegy for what might have been.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org