Note: contains spoilers, NOT “the big one.”
Here it is, the Gay Cowboy Movie.
I’m not supposed to call it that, I know. Months of studio hype and preemptive finger-wagging (looking at you, Jeffrey Wells) have gone into the goal of telling people NOT to call this The Gay Cowboy Movie. “It’s not a Gay Cowboy Movie,” goes the tune, “it’s a human story”… “it’s a universal love story”… “it’s a SAD Cowboy Movie.” Guess what? When a studio works THIS hard to convince people that they haven’t made “The Gay Cowboy Movie,” it usually means they’ve made “The Gay Cowboy Movie.”
Here’s the nitty-gritty of it: They don’t like being called “The Gay Cowboy Movie” because they’re annoyed that people still remember the infamous “South Park” episode which brilliantly offered up “gay cowboys eating pudding” as the perfect description of a Sundance-style critical-fave. Being spoofed is one thing, being spoofed multiple years before you even exist has just got to be irritating when you’re fishing for Oscars.
The film’s release has been built up as a kind of pop-cultural phenomenon. “Taking a trip to Brokeback Mountain” is common slang for gay affairs, it’s trailer has been spoofed on SNL before anyone had seen the film, Nathan Lane has used two unrelated TV guest appearances to stage elaborate jokes at it’s expense, the New York Times recently ran a full column on the “all your bases are belong to us”-style following that’s sprung up around Jake Gyllenhaal’s melodramatic wail of “I wish I could quit you!!!!” in the trailers as a go-to cinephile laugh line.
It’s got it’s serious hype, too: Gay advocacy groups are hoping for a mainstream hit to help out with visibility, culture-watchers are predicting a red-state/blue-state culture wars skirmish which “Christian”-Right critics have been only too happy to provide, and the studio is hoping the controversy, infamy and the reliability of director Ang Lee propells them to awards season glory.
All of this pre-release hyperbole has led to two different forms of ACTUAL-release hyperbole suffocating too much of the films’ early reviews: Some making the film out as the most significant work since “Citizen Kane” because they find it in agreement with their politics, while others vilify it like “Gigli” because it disagrees with theirs. Both approaches are wrong, and do disservice to the craft of film criticism. The only fair way to approach any film of any subject is objectively, with as little prejudice good or bad as is possible…
…and, speaking objectively, I’m a bit dissapointed to report that; beyond all the hype and controversy; “Brokeback Mountain” doesn’t really work.
It’s 1963 when quiet Ennis del Mar (Heath Ledger) and extroverted rodeo rider Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) are teamed up as tenders of a large sheep heard on the titularWyoming mountain (which technically makes this “The Gay Shepherds-Wearing-Cowboy-Hats Movie,” but nevermind). They hit it off, get stone-drunk one night and then, as they say, one thing leads to another. “Y’know I ain’t queer,” says Ennis. “Me neither,” agrees Jack, but an impromptu sexual encounter the night before seems to argue otherwise.
This early part of the film is the best part, minimal on dialogue and set among some truly stunning cinematography of mountains, forests and wide-open skies. Lee seems to have particular love for imagery of waves of sheep cascading over the hills. The minimal dialogue, meaninwhile, helps lessen the problem of Ledger’s strangely-chosen accent and odd delivery. Those anticipating (or dreading) the much-touted sex scene are in for a bit of a surprise either way, as the sequence takes place in near-darkness, fully clothed, primarily in facial closeups. Shocking? Controversial? Hardly. Still, at this point we’re off to a good start.
It doesn’t last, though, as The film meanders into one of the most repetitive 2nd acts of recent note: Ennis and Jack part ways, meet and marry women, have kids, start lives… then they meet again four years later and the affair begins again; morphing the film into an angsty male-male reworking of “Same Time Next Year.” The marriages get strained, the “fishing trips” get suspicious, Ennis’ wife Alma figures it out and loses control, lather, rinse and repeat. And this is where things start to go haywire…
The first real sign of trouble ahead comes in the form of a gratuitous scene that seems to exist solely to quell potential audience snickering over the “masculinity” of it’s hero: At a 4th of July picnic, Ennis gets to go “Billy Jack” on a pair of gnarly bikers who dare to cuss in front of his wife and girls with… I kid you not… a roundhouse kick, and the result looks like something out of Steven Segal. Recent Steven Segal. (Later, Jack gets a “assert yourself against domineering father-in-law over symbolic turkey carving” scene that plays like the “you go, dude!” topper to a sitcom’s Thanksgiving episode.)
Then arises the film’s central “conflict,” and unfortunately instead of giving the film direction it causes it to (in my opinion, anyway) jump the shark quite definitively: Jack wants Ennis to come be a rancher with him, Ennis refuses; preferring instead the current situation of fooling around on Alma with Jack at his convenience. To rationalize this, he relates a story of how his father made him and his brother look at the corpse of a murdered gay man as kids. Really.
I cannot stress enough how much this development hurts the ability of this film to connect on emotional level, at least in my case. Did Ang Lee and his writers really feel that Ennis’ closestedness required an origin story? To my mind, this element is dramatically unnecessary and weakens the film as a whole: It takes the focus off the issue of Ennis’ ability to deal with his own personal insecurity and broadens it out to a societal commentary, i.e. “if only society-represented-by-his-father wasn’t so intolerant of homosexuals, he wouldn’t be afraid to come out and all the pain caused to him and his loved ones by his secret-keeping wouldn’t exist.”
It’s a nice stab at mixing message with story, and one I’d more or less agree with to boot… but it weakens the actual story by taking the easy way out with regards to Ennis. The plain fact is, this is supposed to be the tragedy of his refusal to admit his true feelings tearing him and those around him apart, but he’s not likable enough for it to work and a simple “it’s dad/society’s fault” explanation isn’t enough by a long shot. He cheats on, ignores, emotionally (and nearly physically) abuses his wife; he knowingly toys with Jack’s volatile emotions and basically jerks everyone who’s foolish enough to love him around without much visible remorse. The film wants us to see this as a tragedy of a man’s secrets eating him alive from within, but why am I supposed to feel bad for him? This isn’t a tragic figure, this is a deep-in-denial coward that we’re asked to accept as a tragic figure because the music and cinematography tell us to.
The other characters are more sympathetic. Michelle Williams as Alma is a stunner, playing the film’s most immediately sympathetic and, problematically, the most dramatically shortchanged figure. Gyllenhaal puts in a good turn as Jack, who seems a cipher at first and shows more depth as the story progresses. Anne Hathaway emerges as a knockout playing Jack’s impossibly gorgeous Rodeo Queen wife, clad throughout the film as a kind of drool-licious cowgirl fetish-doll. And she can act, too, especially in a subtle scene in the 3rd act where she’s called on to emote through little more than disguised coughing.
I feel bad having to give the film a marginally negative review, because there’s a lot in here that really works. Individual scenes have great power, even in the 2nd act where they lose their power by being repeated over and over and over again. But the film doesn’t gel, and there’s too much disconnect from what it wants to be and what it is. What starts out as an interesting relationship drama becomes a thinly-stretched message peice, and finally a misdirected stab at tragedy vis-a-vi a character who doesn’t engender enough sympathy.
Nice try… not enough.
FINAL RATING: 4/10
Note: contains spoilers, NOT “the big one.”