The key shot in Brokeback Mountain comes early in the film, before the two ill-fated lovers ever act on their impulses, or indeed before one of them even realizes that he has such an impulse.

Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger), one of two 19 year-old men tending sheep on a Wyoming mountain, is bathing himself as he can best achieve in suhc primitive conditions, which basically means a sponge bath. Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), his co-shepherd, sits a good way apart from him, resisting as hard as possible the urge to watch. The camera is focused on Jack, Ennis a fuzzy blob in the background. And for ten or fifteen seconds, we watch Jack trying desperately to catch anything out of the corner of his eye without actually turning and gaping.

It speaks to the theme of the whole film, which is essentially the story of two lovers who want badly to not be in love, but can't help it. Eventually, of course, they sleep together, and fall desperately, deeply in love with each other, and for twenty years sneak off to that same mountain for trysts, becoming increasingly frayed as Jack starts to crave a life with Ennis, and Ennis just wants to be a normal man, with a wife and kids and a job.

The day after their first night together, Ennis gruffly insists the he "ain't no queer." Jack immediately agrees. Obviously, Jack is lying to Ennis, but who is Ennis lying to? Jack? Himself? Us? Is he even lying? Later in the film, after his attempt at marriage has ended, it is shown that Ennis doesn't want to be with a woman sexually, but it's not at all clear whether this is because he finds the thought of sex with women loathsome, or if's simply because he won't be unfaithful to Jack.

Nearly every review of this film has made the claim that Ennis and Jack's love founders because society will not accept two men together. This is not the case. Their tragedy comes because society has convinced Ennis that he must never be in love with another man. In fact, for a film set in the conservative West, there's very little obvious homophobia: when Jack and Ennis are discovered on Brokeback Mountain, their boss seems to object less to their relationship, and more to the fact that it kept them away from the sheep. Ennis' wife is horrified to see him with a man, but it's hard to tell whether she views homosexuality or adultery as the greater lie. One scene, near the end, seems to point to violent homophobia, but this scene is the subjective view of a character with a history of seeing phantom homophobia.

No, throughout the film, it's the lovers themselves that keep them apart. Ennis seems wilfully anxious to be caught; he deflects every one of Jack's efforts to build something more lasting than semiannually fucking in the wilderness.

Brokeback Mountain takes place across two very different physical places: the mountain and "the town." It would be simple to say that leaving civilization allows the lovers to indulge their emotions in a sort of noble savagery, but also wrong - in fact, the film reminded me of the work of Werner Herzog in a way (aided by the hopefully-deliberate choice of naming the rancher who first brings them together Aguirre), because it's not just about how nature frees us to be our truest selves, but more about how easy it is to go mad from the revelation of what that entails. They go to Brokeback Mountain to get away from adversity, but surrounded by the wild, they lose track of themselves, and essentially burn themselves up. By no accident is it that the angriest moment between the two lovers in the film takes place in front of an eye-poppingly beautiful lake vista.

More than that, though, I was reminded of Brief Encounter: it is the story of two people who fall accidentally in love, and become inviolably linked to each other through a series of regular but infrequent meetings. Like that film, their tragedy is because arbitrary social rules have convinced them that their love is invalid and "wrong." And the comparison makes an important point: no matter how liberal and radical the film looks, at heart Brokeback Mountain is a creakily old-fashioned love story. It would have been perfectly comfortable in the 30's, if not for the sort of insignificant fact that the leads are of the same gender. (The most amazing thing about the film: even as the leads violently thrust against each other in passion, it's difficult to think of them as "gay." Certainly, Ennis is in all ways other than his love for Jack, as straight as straight can be. If the film does nothing else politically, I hope that it will underscore how much of a lie identity politics are in this respect: being homosexual does not entail being a swishy Queer Eye stereotype, but is in fact perfectly compatible with being a taciturn cattle wrangler).

Ledger and Gyllenhaal are both perfect: especially Ledger, who takes the role of a inarticulate cowboy, completely unwilling to ever say much of anything, and reveals vast longing and need. In a scene where he never speaks, and never in fact looks towards the camera, he is able to communicate just with his body language, the curl of his mouth, how much he aches to be with Jack, even as his desire scares him.

Special love must also go to Rodrigo Prieto, who turns in perhaps his finest cinematography ever. Among the laymen, it is easy to praise a film for being beautiful only because it is pointed at beautiful things. Prieto demonstrates hoe much more beautiful vistas and mountains are when a great photographer is shooting them. More importantly, he captures the cluttered, stuffy interiors of the town perfectly. Watching the scenes inside, it is impossible not to understand why Jack and Ennis would want to escape to Brokeback Mountain whenever possible.

And of course, director Ang Lee. Not a slouch, by any means; yet this is so much richer than even the finest of his previous work. He contrasts the wilds with the town, and the love between the men with their relationships with their wives, with a remarkble subtlety that still manages to be absolutely clear. He also has an unerring knack for knowing when a closeup will have the effect of a gunshot, and when to pull back and allow us to take in the grandeur of the mountain, with the lovers merely one element of a great canvas.

This is a great film. It transcends, utterly, the trappings of "that gay western." It is neither of those things. It uses the iconography of the West because of that genre's relationship to personal freedom and men being their honest selves; it uses the specificity of a homosexual relationship to extrapolate a story which should speak true to anyone, gay or straight, who has been in love. There were points that the film made me cry. I can't speak any more to its honesty than that.