(R) 4 stars

Ed Johnson-Ott

Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Brokeback Mountain'

One of the biggest factors working for and against Brokeback Mountain is its own reputation. The film has received an enormous amount of pre-release publicity due to its subject matter and its success with critics, judges and general audiences on the film festival circuit. Consequently, late-night talk show writers unleashed their inner sophomores to produce a torrent of coarse jokes about the "gay cowboy movie," while film buffs grew ever more excited about the "breakthrough gay romantic epic that may very well cross over to mainstream audiences."

Oh, the anticipation!

I doubt that Brokeback Mountain will be embraced by mainstream America; certainly not by the straight male portion. Despite the progress made by the gay civil rights movement over the last few decades, there is no getting around the fact that the very notion of two men kissing and snuggling still makes most straight guys as squirmy as a 6-year-old in need of a pee.

As for the crowd that has been counting the days until the film opens, I expect most of them will enter the theater ready for a transcendent experience and exit the facility satisfied, unaware that they served as co-writers, imprinting their own expectations onto a movie that holds its emotional cards very close to the chest.

Ang Lee (The Ice Storm, Sense and Sensibility) is a polite filmmaker drawn to projects with characters that have trouble expressing tender feelings. Brokeback Mountain, adapted for the screen by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana from Annie Proulx's superb 1997 short story, finds the director at his most austere. So much so that a few people I spoke with complained that they never saw the transition from sex to love between the leading men. I disagree, but I understand their distress.

Set in 1963 Wyoming, the story introduces us to Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) as the young bucks first meet, while waiting outside an office to apply for a job. Is there something sexual in the way they eye each other, or are they simply sizing each other up the way most men do with strangers? Ang Lee provides the visuals, you provide the interpretation.

The young men get hired by rancher Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid) to tend his sheep up on Brokeback Mountain over the summer. Communication is limited at first - Ennis is a man of few words; stoic enough to inhibit easygoing Jack - but over time they learn the basics about each other.

On one cold, liquor-laced night, Jack invites Ennis to share his pup tent for warmth. Before long, the two begin spooning, which abruptly (and wordlessly) turns into a session of raw sex. So what does one cowboy in 1963 Wyoming say to the other on the morning after?

Not much.

"You know I ain't queer," Ennis mutters, to which Jack states, "Me neither."

They soon end up back in the sack again, of course, and a routine develops. Ennis and Jack become more relaxed around the campfire. Is the horseplay and increased conversation merely socialization, or are we watching the burgeoning romance between two men unable to verbalize their feelings?

Ang Lee provides the visuals, you provide the interpretation.

At the end of summer, they go their separate ways. Ennis marries sweet, devoted Alma (Michelle Williams) and they make babies, but when we see them having sex, Ennis flips his wife over onto her stomach (I doubt anyone will have any trouble interpreting that particular visual). Jack eventually ends up married to pretty, spoiled Lureen (Anne Hathaway), whose successful parents view Jack with disdain.

Years pass, then Ennis receives a postcard from Jack proposing a visit. When the men finally see each other, they hug enthusiastically and start heading inside, but their feelings overwhelm them and they duck around a corner and begin kissing passionately. Alma sees them from the window, but says nothing. She says nothing when they take off together, or when they start taking "fishing trips" together. As for the boys, the sex is great. So is the snuggling. But what can they do about their relationship when neither of them can even say aloud what it is? Jack proposes they start a ranch together, but Ennis remembers what the locals did when two men set up a ranch together back when he was a boy and says no.

So the men make the best of it, taking their trips when they can and spending most of their time at home waiting for the next one. "That ol' Brokeback got us good," says Jack, and it sure did.

Brokeback Mountain is sad and beautiful. It sticks closely to the original Annie Proulx story, carefully avoiding any voiced sentimentality. Proulx conveyed feelings mostly through careful worded descriptions. Ang Lee aims to do the same thing with carefully chosen images, but he is perhaps a bit too reserved.

Or perhaps he felt that the gestures and facial expressions of his cast were sufficient. He certainly assembled a fine ensemble. Heath Ledger is the most obviously impressive as Ennis. His clipped delivery, unlike anything he has done before, is mesmerizing. Although his performance is less of a stretch, Jake Gyllenhaal is just as good bringing Jack to life. Michelle Williams is remarkably effective as frustrated, but dutiful wife Alma and Randy Quaid is absolutely authentic as the surly ranch owner. As the self-absorbed Lureen, Anne Hathaway gets the job done, though she adds no shadings to her character.

The film is packed with gorgeous scenery, and the score, by Gustavo Santaolalla, maintains the tone required by the story, although his repeated use of a particular guitar phrase to convey poignancy got on my nerves.

Brokeback Mountain is a very good film, one of the best of the year. I wish that Ang Lee had shown more of the early stages of the romance between Jack and Ennis, though. Sure, it would make the straight guys in the "mainstream audience" even squirmier, but you know what? I don't think those straight guys are really going to see the movie anyway and besides, to hell with them.