I went in to see Brokeback Mountain thinking it was the front-runner for Best Picture in the Academy Awards. My thinking hasn’t exactly changed, but I’m happy to report that ‘the gay cowboy movie’ is both better and worse than its buzz. The story is not a simple one of tragic lovers separated by anti-homosexual bigotry — as political partisans have been crowing — nor is it a revelation in terms of filmmaking and storytelling, churning the well-tilled fields of (lower-case ‘w’) western epics like Giant and co-screenwriter Larry McMurtry’s previous astute character-pieces, The Last Picture Show and Hud.
As you probably already know, Brokeback tells the story of Jack and Ennis, two young ranch hands who winter in the Wyoming wilderness together. It’s a seasonal job, and the two go their separate ways, even get married. But they can’t get the passionate Eden out of their systems. So they reconnect and become “fishing buddies,” a not-so-elegant euphemism for f*ckbuddies, seeing each other about once a month. Is there love in this relationship, which carries on for many years, and whose intensity is to the detriment of families and careers? That’s the question the movie’s final act — where one of the main characters must adapt to life without the other — wrestles with, sometimes unconvincingly.
Heath Ledger’s performance is justly praised, and here’s hoping the Academy doesn’t award impressions of recently departed musicians two years in a row. His final line delivery, however, rings false. Perhaps there’s an intonation that’s specifically twangy to the phrase ‘I swear’ that the Aussie Ledger couldn’t quite muster; perhaps this was the one moment he let his heterosexual convictions slip through. In any case, the veneer of authenticity the movie has so carefully built has crumbled by the final frame, and we see this movie for what it is: a story. Handsomely crafted, lovingly shot, but a story nonetheless, one that imagines what a cowboy with gay tendencies might have suffered in silent, but one that doesn’t actually know.
The filmmaking, as with all of Ang Lee’s movies, is top notch. I recommend big screen viewing not just because of the gorgeous natural panoramas but also the isolating power of the big western landscapes (filmed in Canada, haha) on the lone figures. The score, by Gustavo Santoalla, is haunting and perfect.