Time plays cruel tricks on the characters of Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee's adaptation of an Annie Proulx short story. Some days promise to last forever. Others get lost in the between-scenes sweep of years. And whatever its speed, time always heads in the same direction, drawing its protagonists away from the promise of the past. That promise begins in a remote Wyoming setting where knockabout cowhands Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger spend a summer in the early '60s tending a herd of sheep for rancher Randy Quaid. Left alone in a pastoral setting, the taciturn Ledger and the effusive Gyllenhaal form an unlikely friendship that develops into an awkward, passionate love, one they agree can't continue once they come down from the mountain.
Their wish comes true all too easily. The film follows them as they each marry and have children, building lives apart from each other that somehow don't quite feel as real as the life they shared, or the seasonal "fishing" trips that eventually become routine. Playing a man prone to downward gazes and half-mumbled sentiments, Ledger seems as afraid of his own desires as he is ashamed of them. His quietness and gift for repression allow him to drift into a conventional American life, and it's a credit to his acting talent that his past work has previously only suggested that he connects the specifics of his character's life to a more iconic image of stoic American manhood: They aren't all gay cowboys, but the world is full of uncomplaining men whose lives fall short of the ones they'd imagined for themselves.
Not that Brokeback Mountain ignores its specific situation either. There's a none-too-subtle—and, in its own way, fairly conservative—argument for gay rights at the heart of the film. Everything inside the characters' hearts works to draw them together while outside forces wedge them apart. Lee gets a bad rap from those who like their auteurs stylistically consistent, and here he abandons the kineticism of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hulk for an austerity inspired by Proulx's prose and a screenplay by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana. The approach is dry as the Wyoming landscape, and while it occasionally threatens to pull the film out of shape, it's still the right one for these men. More importantly, it allows Lee to draw out a theme that's been present in his films from the start: the notion that repressed passion does no one any good. In Brokeback Mountain, it turns vibrant men ghostly. They look backward as life pushes them in the opposite direction, and they fail those around them as they disappoint themselves. In the end, they might have been saved by something as simple as love.