SPOILERI guess whenever I watch a movie where I can tell where the entire plot is going from the minute the projector starts rolling, I call it "conventional." Maybe that's not precisely the right term, but unlike a lot of film buffs, coventionality doesn't always bother me. Indeed, sometimes nothing pleases me more than a good, old-fashioned story. Which is what Brokeback Mountain is. I would never make the argument that Roger Ebert is the foremost critic of our time, but one of his best phrases is one that I think holds generally true: It's not what a movie is about, but how it is about it. I could tell you from the moment I saw him that Jack Twist was going to die. I could tell you that Ennis would get divorced before he even got married. I could tell you halfway through the film that Ennis's daughter would be his potential salvation. I could even marginally predict where the pivotal scenes would come. Etc., etc. The thing is, though, the way the script put everything together (and a lot of the credit goes also to Ang Lee and his performers), it worked. More than worked, it exceeded the conventions. I loved it. Because it was conventional, but true. There are plenty of biopics that funnel decades into two hours, but not all of them do it successfully. Brokeback Mountain had a similar structure, but hit it out of the park.
I didn't think it was conventionally structured at all. I mean, I didn't think the movie was going to continue for 20 minutes after the guy died. the movie had a "faux climax" with the I wish I knew how to quit you monologue, but the real image the movie was building towards was just that one look on heath ledger's face at the very end. and then the credits rolled right after that. that was pretty unconventional for me. all that tension and plot development were actually just decoys to take the audience to as far as the death. I've never seen a screenplay working so hard for the last page before. I mean, I guess Sirk's melodramas were a little bit like that, but this was one focused screenplay, funneling 30 years for one mugshot.
Andrew Sarris, a good candidate for foremost or at least top-notch critic, said what Roger Ebert apparently paraphrased, but in a more eloquent and quotable (not to mention grammatical) way: "It's not 'what happens,' it's how
I didn't exactly find that Ennis's daughter was his salvation. She might have made somewhat more bearable his realization that there was likely no saving him. Personally, I found the last scene, where he is happy for his daughter about falling in love and getting married, one of the most brutally ironic in the film. He's able to muster sincere happiness for her out of his general reluctance, but no similar favor would ever, ever have been granted him: he expected (very understandably) to be shunned, attacked, or even killed--certainly not congratulated--for feeling the same way about someone, and now (at the point this scene comes) it's too late.
It should be noted, too, that what some people perceive as conventional is hardly that to others. In my opinion, Brokeback
is much less conventional than Layer Cake
, which would've seemed more unconventional if it had been made in the era where Brokeback
's conventions were more common. Dominant conventions shift through the eras, obviously, and narrative conventions predate film by centuries. We could say everything has been done before and there's nothing new under the sun, so I tend to go for the Sarris ethos as a criteria much sooner than I try to claim something's unconventional or conventional or--the hardest claim to support--"original."