That most chameleonlike of directors, Ang Lee, pulls off yet another surprising left turn in achingly sad tale of two damaged souls whose intimate connection across many years cannot ever be properly resolved, this ostensible gay Western is marked by a heightened degree of sensitivity and tact, as well as an outstanding performance from Heath Ledger.

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That most chameleonlike of directors, Ang Lee, pulls off yet another surprising left turn in “Brokeback Mountain.” An achingly sad tale of two damaged souls whose intimate connection across many years cannot ever be properly resolved, this ostensible gay Western is marked by a heightened degree of sensitivity and tact, as well as an outstanding performance from Heath Ledger. With critical support, Focus should have little trouble stirring interest among older, sophisticated viewers in urban markets, but trying to cross this risky venture over into wider release reps a marketing challenge for the ages; paradoxically, young women may well constitute the group that will like the film best.

In his uneven Civil War-era drama “Ride With the Devil,” Lee revealed a touch for portraying neglected aspects of Western Americana, a talent he applies and readjusts in an updated context here.

Annie Proulx’s 1997 short story movingly compressed the long-arc love story of two loner ranch hands into 30 tight pages. Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana have faithfully and perceptively retained the tone and the particulars of the tale in their screenplay, elaborating mainly in the areas of the separate family lives the men pursue during their long separations.

Precise build-up over the opening half-hour shows the director thoroughly at home with the emotional reserve of his characters and the iconography of the Wyoming setting. It’s 1963, and brawny Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) and lean Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), who have never met, pose, smoke and brood outside a dusty roadside office before taking summer jobs tending a large herd of sheep for a rancher (Randy Quaid); all this is accomplished without the two uttering as much as a word.

Running the sheep through stunning country up to Brokeback Mountain (pic was shot in Alberta), Ennis and Jack begin to relate, mainly thanks to Jack’s relative loquaciousness; he’s a Texas boy, has done a bit of rodeo riding and is the more easygoing. In his clenched, tight-lipped manner, Ennis alludes to his parents’ death in a car wreck, his patchy upbringing and education and his engagement to a young lady.

The job they’re on is dull, even annoying, as one of them is supposed to spend nights in a distant pup tent to protect the sheep from predators; the only comfort comes from their conversation and liberal supply of whiskey. One cold and liquor-fueled night, Jack insists Ennis get in the tent with him to keep warm. The snuggling quickly, and roughly, turns into something else. Their primal urges take things to where neither of them has gone before, and they can scarcely digest it or talk about it afterward. “You know I ain’t queer,” Ennis manages, to which Jack concurs, “Me neither.”

But it isn’t long before they’re at it again, establishing an indelible bond they agree no one else can know about or possibly understand. At summer’s premature end, they go their separate ways with just a “See ya around.”

Making all this play in a mainstream-style movie represents a real tightrope walk for the writers, director and, especially, the actors. All hands manage it through a shrewd balance of understated emotion and explosive physicality. The young men’s pent-up sexuality expresses itself most comfortably through boyish horsing around, but this can also slip over into outright violence, as when they hit each other with bloody results.

The men cope with their perplexing feelings by ignoring them. Ennis marries a sweet girl, Alma (Michelle Williams), and they soon have two daughters. But a quick sex scene in which Ennis flips his wife over on her stomach tells us all we need to know about his true preferences.

For his part, Jack drifts around, marries and has a son with cute Texas girl Lureen (Anne Hathaway), whose respectable parents can’t abide the no-account cowpoke.

At long last, Jack lets Ennis know he’s coming for a visit, sending the latter into a state of barely suppressed anticipation. When they finally see each other after several years, they can’t restrain themselves, kissing passionately where the unfortunate Alma can see them. With the excitement of teenagers, the guys check into a motel to reignite things, and Jack sums it up when he observes, “That ol’ Brokeback got us good.”

The two thereafter arrange to get away for “fishing” trips periodically over the years, their marriages slowly failing while their bond holds fast. While the more impulsive Jack keeps pushing the idea of taking off and setting up a ranch together, Ennis recalls a devastating childhood incident as a means of ruling this out. Although both men are impaired due to their narrow life histories, it is Ennis who is oddly the most damaged and yet the most pragmatic as to how they can continue their relationship, however unsatisfactorily.

Ultimately, it’s a sorrowful story of men lucky enough to connect but forlornly unable to fulfill their characters and live according to their true natures. Unfortunately, the film hits this same note far too often in the latter going; the point is made well before the yarn plays itself out and, like virtually every Lee picture, this one is too long for its own good.

Both young thesps are game, credible as cowboys and unselfconscious with the verbal and physical intimacy. But while Gyllenhaal is engaging as the more free-wheeling of the two, Ledger is powerfully impressive as a frightened, limited man ill-equipped to deal with what life throws at him. Mumbling, looking down, internalizing everything, Ledger’s Ennis at times looks as though he’s going to explode from his inchoate feelings. Perf could scarcely be more different from his terrific work in the otherwise negligible “Lords of Dogtown,” and the combo makes it a dazzling year for Ledger.

Williams gives Alma a quality of slow-burn devastation that is touching, and Hathaway provides an entertaining contrast in wifely disappointment. The numerous small supporting roles are sharply etched, a sign of Lee’s sure hand with the material.

The beautiful, rugged locations, which would have roused Anthony Mann, are majestically captured by lenser Rodrigo Prieto. The passing years, from the early ’60s to the late ’70s, are subtly indicated in the production and costume design, hair styles and gingerly aging makeup, while Gustavo Santaolalla’s conventionally supportive score is nicely abetted by a host of period and setting-appropriate tunes.

Brokeback Mountain

Production

A Focus Features release of a Focus Features and River Road presentation. Produced by Diana Ossana, James Schamus. Executive producers, William Pohlad, Larry McMurtry, Michael Costigan, Michael Hausman, Alberta Film Entertainment. Co-producer, Scott Ferguson. Directed by Ang Lee. Screenplay, Larry McMurtry, Diana Ossana, based on the short story by Annie Proulx.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Rodrigo Prieto; editors, Geraldine Peroni, Dylan Tichenor; music, Gustavo Santaolalla; music supervisor, Kathy Nelson; production designer, Judy Becker; art directors, Tracey Baryski, Laura Ballinger; set decorators, Patricia Cuccia, Catherine Davis; costume designer, Marit Allen; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), Drew Kunin; supervising sound editors, Eugene Gearty, Philip Stockton; assistant directors, Michael Hausman, Pierre Tremblay; casting, Avy Kaufman. Reviewed at Telluride Film Festival, Sept. 2, 2005. (Also in Venice, Toronto film festivals.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 134 MIN.

With

Ennis Del Mar - Heath Ledger Jack Twist - Jake Gyllenhaal Cassie - Linda Cardellini Lashawn Malone - Anna Faris Lureen Newsome - Anne Hathaway Alma - Michelle Williams Joe Aguirre - Randy Quaid L.B. Newsome - Graham Beckel Monroe - Scott Michael Campbell Randall Malone - David Harbour Alma Jr., age 19 - Kate Mara Jack's Mother - Roberta Maxwell John Twist - Peter McRobbie

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