"Boys Don't Cry" cuts deep, to where the bullet breaks the bone.

The movie follows the melancholy vector of Teena Brandon, 1971-1993. Teena, a live-wire Nebraskan with proclivities she herself did not fully understand, swaddled her breasts in Ace bandages, pulled on a pair of jeans and boots, threw on a cowboy hat, left Lincoln and hitched to the hinterlands, reinventing herself as a wiry, rawboned, tough-talkin', beer-swillin' young fella named Brandon Teena.

There, in the heart of the heart of the country, the newly christened "Brandon" met new friends, messed around in pickup trucks, fell in love, had sex (sort of) and, for her efforts, was raped and subsequently murdered.

The movie is, to be sure, the longest, hardest sit of the season--you are stuck there, a single tube of puckered muscle, waiting for the extremely ugly violence to occur--but it is driven by performances of such luminous humanity that they break your heart.

Place it in that small genre of true-crime stories set on the pitiless plains of the great, raw middle of the country, where the wind is always sharp and the roads are all bad and the miles between comforts are many indeed. It belongs with "In Cold Blood" and "The Executioner's Song," tales of human malfeasance under a sky so big that it makes what happens under them seem insignificant, if it wasn't so damned painful.

The singular brilliance of Kimberly Peirce's film is that it makes you believe on its own terms. It doesn't turn Teena or Brandon--wonderfully portrayed by Hilary Swank--into a cardboard saint or an icon of victimization, but instead sees her as a whole character, tics, warts, lies and all. As Teena, she's no stranger to the system. A petty crook (grand theft auto) and locally famous for her masquerades--they almost always get her beaten up or at least threatened with a thumping--she ends up, one drunken evening, in Falls City, down in the southwest corner of the state, one of those mean, scabby towns that most movies usually see as places to leave. For Brandon, here at last is a place to stay.

There, in one of those bars where the cigarette smoke burns your eyes and the C&W hammers your head with its banshee's cries of lost love, dead dogs and pickups that won't start, and everybody seems strangely angry, she just sort of falls in with a group of young people.

Eventually they reveal themselves to be loosely affiliated with a "mom" of about 35 (Jeannetta Arnette, in another of the movie's brilliant performances) who herself lives on a beer-and-cigarette diet and differs from her daughter and her daughter's friends only in the look of perpetual weariness under her eyes, as if life has worn her out.

I had no luck making out the kinship system here. Are these cousins or siblings or ex-stepchildren or what? It would take an anthropologist to figure it all out; what is clear is only that, against the harshness of an indifferent world and a bitter climate, they've formed a tribal union that gives everybody a sense of belonging.

Mom rules, but only nominally, like an aging queen. The true power rests with two princes of the realm, and the object of everybody's obscure desire is one princess.

The princes are John (Peter Sarsgaard) and his acolyte, sycophant and shield bearer, Tom (Brandan Sexton III). These are young men stiffed by a society that has very little use for them. They have but one role--other than making Susan Faludi a wealthy woman--which is to not get in the way, which, of course, is exactly where they get.

Someone--presumably director Peirce--has a dead-on eye for rural blue-collar culture. These young men, both ex-cons with time served for petty, hopeless scams, in their hooded sweat shirts and their tight jeans and their spindly nests of well-glopped hair, are seething with anger of a place denied, of their own sense of the world passing them by, of their eternal nothingness. They can face reality and control their impulses toward violence only when well lubricated by beer. They are a fight club waiting to happen, and they could kick Brad Pitt's pretty little rear end all the way to Omaha.

And, of course, they love the Princess. Everybody loves the Princess. The Princess is Mom's daughter. Who wouldn't love her? Lana (Chloe Sevigny) has the lightless eyes of the bored but the face and beauty of a goddess, even if she works in a spinach-canning plant. In hairnet and blue uniform smock, smoking a butt and looking out the window at the far-off horizon, she looks like Botticelli's Venus. To see her is to fall in love; it happened to John and Tom--and it happens to Brandon.

What the movie gets so well is not merely Brandon's attraction to Lana, and hers to her, but also the curious way Brandon's sexual charisma miswires the sexual politics of the situation. For the secret is that, in their way, John and Tom are drawn to Brandon, too. They're picking up on something they don't quite realize is there; they think he's cute and funny, and are forever playing grab-ass and acting on all those strange, incoherent sexual impulses that men cannot articulate and deeply deny but nevertheless randomly feel.

It's a circle of attraction that is extremely unsettling to everybody. And to Brandon's shame, she loves it; you can feel her joy in the deception, even as it's building toward violence. (And you know equally what she cannot: that John and Tom are not the kind of boys to be fooling around with. They won't get the joke. Too many have already been played on them.)

Concealed under its true-crime melodrama, "Boys Don't Cry" contains an argument: that your nature is your nature, and it must be obeyed no matter where it leads. Agree or not, this is a powerful theory of drama that dates back a mere 4,000 years. Character is fate, it says.

So there's something about it that has the inevitability of Greek drama. These people's destiny is rooted in their characters and their hubris; that's what makes them dangerous. And that's what makes them human.

Boys Don't Cry (114 minutes, at the Cineplex Odeon Janus 3 and Hoyts Potomac Yard Cinema 16) is rated R for an intense rape scene, nudity and ugly violence.

CAPTION: Hilary Swank stars in the true story of murdered cross-dresser Teena Brandon.

CAPTION: Chloe Sevigny in "Boys Don't Cry."