The word is out â€“ and the word, apparently, is â€œcowboys.â€ As the year limped to a close and filmmakers made their last, frantic stabs at Oscar glory, two of the most-talked about films are, basically, Westerns turned inside out. Although Walk the Line and Brokeback Mountain may not have much in common (apart from the fact that they are both, at times, very good), they are decidedly more country than rock â€™nâ€™ roll.
Cowboys have always been a way for filmmakers to explore the frailty of human nature. And this has rarely been done with more brute honesty than it is in Walk the Line, the biopic of addict, genius, proto-Goth, and hipster icon Johnny Cash.
The movie refuses to glamorize Cashâ€™s bad decisions â€“ his betrayals, addictions, and brutalities â€“ and is merciless in the way that it follows Cash straight down to the bottom of the barrel. Joaquin Phoenix, in particular, is fearless in his portrayal of Cash, stumbling, groping, and slurring his way through most of his scenes. One gets the sense that, for Johnny Cash, art was not redemption. Art was not even enough to get him through the day. What redeems him, finally, is the strength of his will to be human. As Cashâ€™s long-suffering partner and moral compass, June Carter, Reese Witherspoon is very possibly better than she has ever been. Her June radiates fire and decency; the character could have been played as a doormat, a humble priestess at the Temple of Cash, but Witherspoon manages to make her vulnerability seem like a form of courage. Over the course of the movie, June and John love and fight, make good records and grave mistakes, pull each other through addiction and forced rehab, and come through to the other side scarred but alive. The movie reaches its most honest climax when Cash gives his triumphant concert at Folsom Prison, an odd and utterly right comeback, which drives home to the viewers his stunning empathy, his ability to see the soul in the worst of men, and his willingness to count himself among them.
Walk the Line is brave, but Brokeback Mountain may be the most daring Western ever made. Its plot is simple: Jack and Ennis, two young cowboys (ranch workers, properly speaking), meet and carry on an affair over the course of twenty years, while marrying, having children, and making every attempt to conceal their joy from a society which condemns it. Though the concept is beautiful, and the event (a big-budget, wide-release, well-promoted movie focused on non-heterosexual desire) is long overdue, the movie itself is spotty, overlong, and unfocused. Heath Ledger, playing Ennis Del Mar, never quite manages to deliver the goods. Ennis is not honest with the people around him, and rarely honest with himself, but Ledger funnels this struggle through a series of showy Marlboro-Man routines â€“ a terminally clenched jaw, an impenetrable mutter, an immutable squint â€“ a schtick which, along with making most of his lines inaudible, manages to shut the audience almost entirely out of his story. Jake Gyllenhaal, as Jack Twist, carries the weight of the film, registering two decades of desire and disappointment through his unobscured blue eyes. And though the movie works when Jack and Ennis are together, theyâ€™re too often apart â€“ which, to be fair, is part of the point. The movie fritters away its time on the details of their home lives, and though Michelle Williams, as Ennisâ€™s wife Alma, makes the most of her time on screen (and delivers some of the saddest, and most unexpected, moments), these scenes mar the effect of the story, like cotton padding wrapped around a knife. Several critics have noted that Jack and Ennis are â€œalmost straightâ€; in my professional and non-heterosexual opinion, these two are gay as a romp through a meadow in spring, but the movie makes every effort at misdirecting the focus of its desire. Jack and Ennis have sex precisely once on screen, and remain more or less fully clothed during the act (in fact, the scene is shot in near-total darkness), yet their wivesâ€™ bare breasts are thrown into view often, as if the mere sight of starletsâ€™ chests could mute the affair that is (or ought to be) the center of the film. Brokeback Mountain is not quite the great movie that it should be, but it does open some doors for the great movies that may come in its wake. - Sady O.
Ms. Sady O. is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic. She also writes the Brain Porn Culture Blog.