Thursday, January 7, 2016

Best of the 2000s: Brokeback Mountain

4 Stars

Brokeback Mountain is a great film, but it is neither as good as its adherents claim nor as bad as its detractors say. Still better than Crash though (more on that later).

Brokeback Mountain tells the story of Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), two ranch hands who meet on a job in 1963. They fall in love, but love between two men in mid-century Montana was forbidden (if not unlawful then certainly dangerous). After their first encounter, they return to their lives. Each marries a woman, produces children, and attempts to deny their love for the other man. After a few years, they meet again, then again some time later, then again and again every few months. The love affair they engage in is ultimately disastrous for both men. It’s a tragic romance a la Romeo and Juliet, and the film’s poster was consciously modeled on the poster for Titanic – evoking another pair of doomed lovers.

Brokeback Mountain is also notable for being the first successful mainstream depiction of a homosexual romance between two men where the plot of the film is unconnected to the struggle for gay rights. It’s extraordinarily well acted, Ledger and Gyllenhaal are exceptional. Ledger in particular does great work here, quite a feat considering the fact that his character is frequently wordless. Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway who play the wives of Ennis and Jack respectively do tremendous work. Hathaway’s performance here is frequently overlooked. She doesn’t have many scenes, but over the course of the film she creates a character that grows from an ingĂ©nue to an emotionally damaged and distant woman – a consequence of the emotional abandonment her husband Jack perpetrates on her. Williams was nominated for an Oscar for her role.

Adapted from a short story of the same name, Brokeback Mountain faithfully translates the short story to the film, but in the process the marriages of Ennis and Jack are expanded upon, creating much more psychologically complex portraits of the two men at the center of this story.

The reason that I think Brokeback Mountain is not as good as its adherents claim is that Brokeback Mountain feels self-conscious. The film is aware of the place it would come to occupy in the culture as “the gay cowboy movie.” Both Ms. Williams and Ms. Hathaway appear topless in Brokeback Mountain, a decision that appears calculated to make it "alright" to watch the film. The love scenes between the two male leads are brief and cut together in ways that obscure the scenes' emotion. Even the decision to expand the information about Ennis’ and Jack’s marriages (while adding the aforementioned psychological complexity) muddies the waters, allowing for people to read the characters as not truly homosexual (Ledger went so far as to claim that Ennis Del Mar was not attracted to other men - only to Jack).

Nevertheless, Brokeback Mountain emerged as a litmus test for the population on the topic of gay rights and homophobia. It was practically required to like Brokeback Mountain, or be lumped in with Fox News pundits who hated Brokeback Mountain because they were against gay rights. Never was this more clear than when Brokeback Mountain lost the best picture race to Crash early the next year. Many people attributed the surprise “upset” to homophobia within the Academy. Commentators suggested that the old, stodgy Academy was uncomfortable with Brokeback Mountain’s “appropriation” of the classic western motifs for a homosexual romance.

That narrative doesn’t really fit the available data. Brokeback Mountain won top honors from the Directors Guild (Outstanding Director), Producers Guild (Best Theatrical Motion Picture), and Writers Guild (Best Adapted Screenplay). It was nominated in nearly all categories at the Screen Actors Guild Awards that year, and didn’t win a single one. The Screen Actors Guild Awards have no award for best picture. The closest award might be “Best Performance by an Ensemble” which, that year, SAG awarded to Crash. The same Crash that later went on to take Best Picture.

There isn’t a one-to-one correlation between guild and academy membership, but they’re pretty close. The various guild awards are frequently seen as the most predictive of the Oscars. So the oldest, wealthiest members of the Academy gave “the gay cowboy movie” awards, but the actors section of the Academy abandoned the film. Ironically it was the youngest, largest, and most diverse section of the Academy that stymied Brokeback Mountain’s Best Picture chances. What happened?

Crash was a HUGE ensemble, a movie about Los Angeles, and perfectly designed to appeal to SAG members. It features exactly the kind of acting that actors love to do (big scenes of confrontation). The truth is that when it came to the Best Picture race against Crash, Brokeback Mountain was going up against the home team.

This has led to a backlash against Crash that probably isn’t fair. In the same year that Brokeback Mountain lost to Crash, the Academy nominated or awarded other films with LGBTQ themes like Capote and Transamerica. I think a fair person would have a hard time making the charge of homophobia.

Ultimately, I think Brokeback Mountain is a great film. It also holds a unique (nearly solitary) position within its genre. For that reason, Brokeback Mountain remains slightly overrated in most critical estimations. Brokeback Mountain’s chief flaw remains that it was too conscious of its place in the zeitgeist to immerse viewers fully in its story.

As to the question of Best Picture, I think we can all agree that the Best Picture that year was Batman Begins. Brokeback Mountain was better than Crash though.

Brokeback Mountain finds itself on this list because 5 of the 37 critics cited it as one of the best films of the 2000s, just like the next film on my list, Almost Famous.

From Out in the Void,

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