In Ang Lee's "Sense and Sensibility," the characters never stopped talking. In his new film, "Brokeback Mountain," they rarely start. Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) is a ranch hand who is hired, along with sometime Texas rodeo rider Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), for a summer job herding sheep on Wyoming's Brokeback Mountain. They've never met before, and for a while, they communicate - or at least Ennis does - mostly through grunts and mumbles.
Their closeness is that of the classic Westerner's - what is not spoken is more eloquent than that which is. But then the film takes a startling turn. On a cold night, Ennis and Jack lie together for warmth and then, suddenly, have sex.
In most Westerns, the devotion between cowboys is depicted as deeper and more spiritually sustaining than the love between a man and a woman. "Brokeback Mountain," which screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana expertly expanded from the celebrated 1997 short story by Annie Proulx, makes explicit the sexual undercurrent that, rightly or wrongly, not a few critics have at times detected in the intense masculine bonds of these strong, silent types.
In this sense, as well as in the graphic nature of some of the sex scenes, "Brokeback Mountain" is a zeitgeist-capturing moment for Hollywood. But, ultimately, its timing may well be a matter for the sociologists. As, too, will be the response from the general audience, which inevitably, and understandably, will be sharply divided. After all, nothing like this film has ever really been seen before from a major movie company. I'm referring not only to the film's sexual content here. What is truly distinctive about "Brokeback Mountain" is that it brings to life a love story that, after all these years of love stories, is essentially new to mainstream movies, and it does so without special pleading or sentimentality.
Ennis and Jack come down off the mountain that summer not knowing if they will ever see each other again. They barely acknowledge what went on between them, and no future plans are made. But as Jack drives off, Ennis throws up. He can't comprehend the chasm that has opened up inside him.
For the next 20 years, from the early 1960s to the late '70s, Ennis and Jack, both of whom become husbands and fathers, hook up for brief, intense getaways. Jack wants to leave his family for Ennis, who can only respond by saying, "If you can't fix it, you gotta stand it."
He is the more emotionally armored of the two, and for much of the movie he is unable to acknowledge his passion for Jack. As his marriage to a good woman (the remarkable Michelle Williams) breaks up, his violent outbursts, which are really a form of self-abasement, become the only way he can act out his despair and bewilderment. Ang Lee is a remarkable humanist. He shows us not only the emotional damage that Jack and Ennis undergo but also the toll that is taken on their wives and children. No one is a villain, and no one is spared from sorrow.
Gyllenhaal has a rare ability to bring out the youthful ardor in his characters without seeming callow. It is a gift that stands him in good stead because we must believe that the smitten Jack, over a period of two decades, is capable of sustaining a deepening passion. Ledger does something even more difficult: He gives us a full-scale portrait of a man who is so imprisoned by tradition and inhibition that he can never break out. Ledger's underplaying is a sign of grace. It is an acknowledgment that, for some men, there is pain too deep for words.
Ennis, we are made to believe, is the Old West while Jack, who imagines they can have a life together, is a precursor of the New West. But both are in the wrong place at the wrong time. "Brokeback Mountain" is a tragedy because these men have found something that many people, of whatever sexual persuasion, never find - true love. And they can't do anything about it. Grade: A
• Strong caution: Rated R for sexuality, nudity, language, and some violence.