Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Favorite for Best Picture

I finally saw Brokeback Mountain on Friday, and it’s impressive. I'm fairly sure it will win Best Picture, given what seems like average competition. As everyone has said, Ang Lee gets extraordinary performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, neither of whom had ever done anything -- that I’d seen -- to predict it. Gyllenhaal, as Jack, has the role less tailor-made for Oscar, but he’s completely convincing. He also has good comic timing, which surprisingly comes into play, providing the few moments of levity. I’ve only seen one of the other nominated performances, but I can't imagine Gyllenhaal not winning Best Supporting Actor. Partly because: why is he “supporting”? Sure, he has a few less minutes on screen than Ledger, but compare his role in the film to that of Michelle Williams, who’s up for Best Supporting Actress. By any sane standard, Jake and Heath are co-leads here, with everyone else “supporting.” Ledger, as Ennis, drops his voice to a shy rumble to represent his character’s repression, and other than the fact that it seems too “Sling Blade-y” a couple of times, he really pulls it off.

I can't see how any artistic venture can be judged solely by the purity of its moral intentions -- and it's not even clear to me that Brokeback has all of the moral intentions that I'm sure are being ascribed to it. I think the sexual (and social) identity issues at the heart of the story are more complex than our culture's level of debate generally allows, but an analysis of them would require more thinking on my part and a much longer post (which no one wants). So to hint at the complexity, I'll just quote Walter Kirn, a brilliant critic, from his review of Close Range by Annie Proulx, the collection of short stories in which Brokeback originally appeared:
The stand-out among the stories is the last: "Brokeback Mountain," the sad chronology of a love affair between two men who can't afford to call it that. They know what they're not -- not queer, not gay -- but have no idea what they are. Just actors. Westerners. Caught up in myths impossible to live out but death to let go of, supposing they even could.
Not terribly much happens plot-wise (another talented filmmaker might have turned the source material into a 45-minute short that was just as effective in its way), yet the movie never feels like it’s dragging, partly because its landscape is stunning. Brokeback is impossibly beautiful on an aesthetic level, and it’s this fact that elevates it to Great Movie status. There are a few seconds-long shots of sheep that on their own deserve an Oscar nomination. Lingering looks at mountains lit at different times of day, and, early on, the perfectly captured rustling sounds of a camp site -- these are among the details that clinch the environment’s role as the third lead. As important as scripts and performances are, I’m always reminded by a movie like this just how much I enjoy careful attention to tactility. With a less fully realized backdrop -- without touches like an approaching thunderstorm, perfectly rendered -- Brokeback’s rewards might be thinner and more susceptible to hijack by political reductionists.


Blogger Dezmond said...

I saw Brokeback Saturday night before the Oscars. I enjoyed it as well. We definitely disagree on "Crash" (which I still think is the best film out of the 5 nominated, followed by "Munich", then "Brokeback", and then "Capote", which I did not think was that great. Didn't see "Good Night, Good Luck").

I generally agree with all you said, especially about how beautifully it was filmed.

10:46 AM  
Blogger Robin said...

Heath Ledger gave a strong, engaging, manic performance in "Brothers Grimm." Check it out. I was falling for the "Crash" upset, but you're right. The structure sucked worse than the piety. Still, Brokeback wasn't all that, either. At least it was recognized for some of its strongest points -- cinematography, adapted screenplay, and director.

5:24 PM  

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