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click to enlarge Been tendin long? Heath Ledger (left) and Jake - Gyllenhaal (right) in Brokeback Mountain.
  • Been tendin long? Heath Ledger (left) and Jake Gyllenhaal (right) in Brokeback Mountain.

*Brokeback Mountain (R)
Kimball's Twin Peak, Cinemark 16

Annie Proulx's short story "Brokeback Mountain" opens with a passage that reads like stage direction -- terse, present tense, to the point -- introducing Ennis Del Mar, a working cowboy with barely a pot to piss in, feeling good on this particular morning because he's dreamed of Jack Twist, his former lover.

Larry McMurtry and wife-slash-screenwriting partner Diana Ossana open the film version of director Ang Lee's elegiac Brokeback Mountain with a sweeping shot of the empty Wyoming landscape. With hill upon hill bisected by straight lines of two-lane highway, one lonely set of headlights pierces the still dawn.

Young Jack Twist, played by a beefy, nearly jaunty Jake Gyllenhaal, arrives at a dusty warehouse looking for summer work as a sheep tender. Arriving simultaneously is Ennis Del Mar, played with a James Dean squint and a Marlon Brando mumble by Heath Ledger. Jack catches a glimpse of Ennis, a lanky mutt whose coloring blends into the landscape, in his pickup truck's rearview mirror, and we're clued in to a physical attraction -- immediate, shameless and strictly forbidden.

Jack and Ennis spend the last summer of their youth on Brokeback Mountain, guiding a herd of a thousand sheep, getting to know each other on long, whiskeyed evenings before the campfire, roughhousing and, ultimately, becoming lovers. They don't talk about their passion, and even deny it, splitting up with a casual, "See you around."

Ennis marries his fiance, Alma Beers (Michelle Williams), and spawns two daughters. Jack returns to the rodeo, where he meets Lureen (Anne Hathaway), the ambitious daughter of a rich farm-machinery mogul. He marries her and settles into a life of material comfort and emotional barrenness.

Four years later, Jack returns to Wyoming for an electrified reunion with Ennis. They slam into a long embrace and recklessly kiss just outside the kitchen door, their misbehavior witnessed by Alma. The dissolution of Ennis' marriage is foretold, as is a long series of reunions over 20 years -- fishing and hunting trips into the Wyoming wilderness -- that stoke the fire between the two cowboys and temporarily ease their loneliness.

That's about all there is to Brokeback Mountain, except for the deep-seated fear of their relationship voiced by Ennis one night. He remembers a scene from his childhood -- the mutilated body of a dead cowboy lying in a ditch.

"They'd took a tire iron to him. Spurred him up, drug him around by his dick until it pulled off, just bloody pulp." The dead man's transgression: love for another man. Ennis' father made sure his boys saw the body. "Hell," says Ennis, "for all I know, he done the job."

Ang Lee's directorial restraint, the McMurtry-Ossana screenplay so faithful to Proulx's story, near-perfect casting and the magnificent Wyoming landscape yield an unforgettable film, a true Western surrounding a tragic love story. Cowpoke humor provides welcome relief. Steady pacing and carefully controlled scenes mark the fluid passing of time, two hours and two decades.

Most critics have deemed Brokeback Mountain Ledger's film, but it is equally Gyllenhaal's. Both deliver mature, finely wrought performances.

The film's emotional impact is precisely as blunt, clear and devastating as Proulx's prose, a remarkable accomplishment.

"I wish I knew how to quit you," says Jack, near the film's conclusion. Proulx's story ends with Ennis' reflection on a dream about Jack: "There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can't fix it you've got to stand it."

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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