Brokeback Mountain
Directed by Ang Lee
2005, Rated R, 134 min.

In 1997 Annie Proulx wrote the short story that would become “Brokeback Mountain,” the tale of Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, two Wyoming “country boys with no prospects, brought up to hard work and privation,” who happen to fall in love.

In 1998 two thugs beat a young gay man, Matthew Shepard, and left him tied to a Wyoming fence to die.

In 2006 homosexuals are still fighting to be free to fall in love, marry and maybe live happily ever after.

And that’s the point of “Brokeback Mountain”: Straight or gay, we all want to be able to love someone, be loved in return and be allowed to live in peace.

As Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times, “Ennis’s and Jack’s acute emotions — yearning, loneliness, disappointment, loss, love and, yes, lust — are affecting because they are universal.” The fact that it’s about two “gay cowboys” is almost beside the point. (Jack and Ennis aren’t really cowboys so much as displaced farm boys looking for any way to make a living. They meet when they’re both hired as sheepherders.) It’s a heartbreaking story of working-class people, men and women, trying to make a living, trying to do the right thing, imprisoned by limited options, prejudice and fear.

“Brokeback Mountain” is not just a great movie, but maybe one of the best ever. Much of the credit for that goes to Heath Ledger. The Australian heartthrob (“10 Things I Hate About You,” “Casanova”) reinvents himself here as the repressed, taciturn Ennis and his performance is heart-wrenchingly perfect.

The fact that Ledger so plays against type may be why he’s getting most of the attention and the award nominations but Jake Gyllenhaal is also amazing as Jack, the more daring, but also more desperate, of the pair.

Michelle Williams is also being hailed for her portrayal of Ledger’s wife Alma (the two are a real-life couple as well, with a new baby). With Williams, Anne Hathaway as Jack’s wife, and others, “Brokeback Mountain” conveys the depth of the tragedy that engulfs whole families when someone is forced to deny who they are.

Apparently its message is in tune with the public mood. “It’s a story America may be more than ready to hear,” Rich wrote, “a year after its president cynically flogged a legally superfluous (and unpassable) constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage for the sole purpose of whipping up the basest hostilities of his electoral base.”

“Brokeback Mountain” opened to the highest per-screen average earnings of any movie this year and set a record for the highest per-screen gross of any non-animated movie in history. That’s a testament to the basic humanity and fair-mindedness of the American people.

I saw “Brokeback Mountain” for the second time last week and I can’t help thinking that in some ways it’s also a testament to those 12 West Virginia coal miners who died after the Jan. 2 explosion in the Sago Mine. These men were doing what they had to do to live. The coal company wasn’t going to keep them safe. Their options were limited. But they had families they loved and responsibilities to live up to. “If only they had more opportunities, if only there were more good jobs, if only …”

That to me is the brilliance of “Brokeback Mountain.” It’s about gay cowboys, sort of — itinerant ranch hands is more accurate — but it’s really about all of us.