The runaway success of Brokeback Mountain has been tempered by a certain amount of indignation. To hear some angry Amurricans tell it, director Ang Lee should be drawn and quartered for suggesting that a couple of cowboys could go queer for each other in 1963, no less. Fortunately, the validity of juxtaposing open-range imagery and homo leanings is easy to test. Just dwell for a moment on your own DVD collection. Own more than three Westerns? Congratulations. You're gay.
Now that that's out of the way, we can all enjoy the patent excellence of Brokeback, in which Lee takes a setup that could easily slide into tragic self-parody and instead steers it confidently toward the moving and transcendent. In need of work, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) sign up for a season herding sheep on a Wyoming mountainside. At first, their isolated servitude follows a properly macho course, with gruff ranch hand Ennis chiding Jack then an undistinguished rodeo rider about the latter's lousy cooking. But some curious glances the boys steal during clothes-changing times suggest that a different relationship simmers below the surface. It all culminates in a sudden, fevered tryst inside their tent a coupling brought about by some combination of alcohol, boredom, the lateness of the hour and just plain infatuation. The exact percentages are yours to decide (though be aware that the scene is a shade more explicit than one would assume from the movie's "It's about love, not sex" PR).
From there, writers Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana (adapting a short story by Annie Proulx) confront the thorny question of how Ennis and Jack can possibly integrate their newfound love into their regular lives. They aren't asked to return to their jobs when the summer is up; the disapproving eye of boss Randy Quaid sees to that. So the best they can do is to make Brokeback Mountain a private getaway to which they can periodically escape as they pursue separate, "normal" existences i.e., ones defined by unfulfilling marriages and spiritual malaise. The roles the fellas play in the outside world mirror the ones in their own relationship: Jack, the bottom, is likewise subservient to his brash wife (Anne Hathaway, a long way from The Princess Diaries) and controlling father-in-law, though he entertains romantic fantasies of making his dalliance with Ennis permanent; Ennis, ever the pragmatic tough guy, puts his stock in perpetual denial. Ledger's performance is the film's biggest revelation, echoing an entire society's ambivalence toward gays in an individual portrayal of he-man posturing and shamed self-evasion (even when the script involves him in a fleeting bit of boldness that's markedly out of character).
A few critics have decried the latter half of the movie for its structural sameness, alleging that it degenerates into Same Time, Next Year in chaps. I found the purposeful monotony as sadly apt as Jack's intermittent (and pathetic) attempts to satisfy his Ennis jones with other men. Though they deal with it differently, Jack and Ennis are stuck watching their lives creep by, aware that the consequences of owning up to their true natures are ostracism at best and violent "correction" at worst. Those are the kind of stakes that can put a lock on any viewer's sympathies. Even if you're not of the, um, Western persuasion.