It was the eternal grimace, the decades-long implosion, the attempt at decency swallowed up by half-hearted stabs at propriety, that not only defined Heath Ledger's Ennis Del Mar, but also Brokeback Mountain as a whole. And if Ennis hadn't already been one of recent American cinema's truly iconic characters, then, sadly, he surely will be from this point forward. Once simultaneously representative of the wide-open frontiers, tight-lipped repression, and willful self-denial of America, Ledger's much-lauded portrait of rough-hewn, gorgeously fragile masculinity now becomes something horribly definitive, indescribably expressive. Brokeback's cultural impact is unthinkable without Ennis's weathered visage, the crinkle of his spreading crow’s feet, the attempts of his denim body armor to make him impervious to emotional pain; Gyllenhaal's transition from yee-haw cowhand to disillusioned romantic useless without Ledger's heedless patience; Ang Lee's restrained mise-en-scène incomplete without Ledger's disappearance into it. If Brokeback's pain proved exquisite for some and unbearably raw for others, odds are it was all because of Ennis's internalized anguish, his disparity between how he felt and how he was told to act opening up a chasm within him too great to bridge. If Brokeback was criticized by some at the time as dated, as a tale of repression and safe closet-dwelling, then it also served as a fitful warning for future generations, a hope that happiness can still exist for a large segment of the American population who every day swallow their guilt, longings, and needs until it all burns like acid in the pits of their stomachs. This was the locus of Ennis's winces, the reason for his roiling guts. Ledger provided the face of anguish, a reflection for many who saw it, now caught forever in a freeze-frame, older than this fine actor will ever have the chance to grow to become.
Update: A lovely tribute to Ledger and all troubled celebrities like him over at the new blog Notes from the Range.