It's 1963 in the nowhere town of Signal, Wyoming. Two drifting cowboys with no other prospects, doe-eyed Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger), who seems to have sorrow pouring right off of him, meet in a trailer office, signing up to work as sheep-herders on nearby Brokeback Mountain. They do the traditional cowboy things up there — pasturing the sheep, cooking beans over a campfire, washing their socks in a sparkling mountain stream. Then they do something decidedly untraditional: One cold evening, after draining a bottle of whiskey, they go into their little pup tent to sleep, side by side, and, in the middle of the night, they roll into each other's arms and suddenly, hungrily start having sex.

The next morning, there's not much talking going on. Later, though, Ennis says, "This is a one-shot thing we got goin' here."

"It's nobody's business but ours," Jack assures him.

"You know I ain't queer."

"Me neither," says Jack.

"Brokeback Mountain," director Ang Lee's adaptation of Annie Proulx's 1997 short story, follows these two forlorn souls for the next 20 years, through their marriages, kids, Ennis's divorce and, occasionally, each year, their "fishing trips" to Brokeback Mountain, where they take up their love affair right where they left off the last time. Jack actually does know his nature — he knows that basically, emotionally, he's gay — and he wants to buy a little ranch with Ennis where they can be together full-time. "Be a sweet life," he says.

The cast of "Brokeback Mountain" explains that it's more than a "gay cowboy movie," only in Overdrive.

But for Ennis, this unexpected relationship with Jack is literally a love that dare not speak its name — he hasn't the words for it, and it baffles and scares him. As a boy, he was taken out to an arroyo by his father to see the battered corpse of a man who'd been caught living with another cowboy and got beaten to death by some local cretins.

"The bottom line is," Ennis tells Jack, "we're around each other and this thing grabs hold of us again, in the wrong place, the wrong time, and we're dead."

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This is a beautiful movie, and a brave one — and not in a grandstanding, PC kind of way. After that initial sex scene, the growing love that Jack and Ennis feel for each other is conveyed in warm looks, soft talk and lingering embraces. It's not a "gay cowboy movie," as some pre-release speculation had it. It's a love story, with cowboys.

The cast is, for the most part, perfectly in synch with the movie's quiet, majestic rhythms. (It was shot in Canada, and director Lee opens up the story with glorious vistas of dawn-blue hills and endless, cloud-marbled sky.) Michelle Williams, as Ennis's wife, Alma, captures all of the panic, fear and heartbreak of a woman who's glimpsed her husband, from a window, embracing and kissing another man. Anne Hathaway gives a spirited portrayal of Jack's lusty, oblivious wife, Lureen. And while Gyllenhaal is a little inscrutable, even off-putting, as Jack, that may have been part of the plan — no one in Jack's life, outside of Ennis, seems to really like him very much.

But it's Heath Ledger's performance as Ennis — a man so beaten down by loneliness and poverty that he can barely speak, or raise his eyes from the ground to attempt a conversation — that raises "Brokeback Mountain" to the level of tragedy. Ledger has been stuck in some dumb movies in recent years ("A Knight's Tale," "The Order"), but he was an offhand delight as a SoCal stoner in "Lords of Dogtown" earlier this year, and he frolics hilariously through the upcoming "Casanova." Here, though, he stands revealed as an actor of breath-taking gifts, and his final scenes at the end of this movie are the most deeply and grievously moving that I've seen this year. Don't miss them.

—Kurt Loder

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