BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN “Nice ass, Gyllenhaal-Gyllenhaal.”

Shortly after the buzz began for Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee's tough and beautiful adaptation of E. Annie Proulx's short story (adapted for the screen by western writer Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana), a Wyoming playwright, Sandy Dixon, gave a vitriolic interview to the Casper Star Tribune. She claimed never to have met a gay cowboy, and chastised Proulx for tarnishing Wyoming's image. "Don't try to take what we had, which was wonderful... Don't ruin that image just to sell a book. Those people that want to make a queer story out of it, they will, and those people that know real cowboys will say it's all hogwash."

If you can imagine the mentality that Dixon's parents must have had about homosexuality, then you have the setting for Brokeback Mountain, which begins in 1963 but feels centuries removed from the free love and hippie movements that were then beginning to take place on both coasts. Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis (Heath Ledger) play itinerant cowboys assigned to protect a flock of sheep on a remote mountain. After too much whiskey and solitude, they engage in a bout of rough but passionate sex, each of them insisting afterward that they're not "queer." Willing themselves into believing this, they go their separate ways, each marrying and having children. But years later, Jack and Ennis reconnect—and realize that their passion was not a youthful folly.

What follows is a lifetime of secret excursions and double lives. Jack dreams of the two running off together and living quietly on a ranch, but Ennis, ashamed of his urges and aware of social realities, sublimates his feelings and withdraws from life altogether. Much has been written about Ledger's performance here, and none of it does justice to the complexities of his portrayal of a lonely, self-loathing man who grows old, denying himself the only thing that he wants in life.

It's as strong of a performance as Sean Penn has ever turned in, and the New York Times rightfully compared it to the best of Marlon Brando. It's to Ang Lee's highest credit that even a performance as strong as Ledger's can neither steal nor dominate this nearly perfect film.