The albatross around the neck of Brokeback Mountain is that it is "the gay cowboy movie." I hate to say that. It's not the fault of the director, or the actors. It's a product of our unfortunate political climate, I think. And it means that you spend the first half-hour of the movie wondering when Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall are going to make out. Granted, in a perfect world a lot of people would still be spending the first thirty minutes wondering, but it'd be of their own volition.
Brokeback continues on to be a fine film, even a powerful film. It reminds me very much of Ennis, Ledger's character. He doesn't talk much, he doesn't really make eye contact with people, and he's not terribly good at figuring out his own drives. Like Ennis, Brokeback Mountain mumbles along without drawing your attention to its craftsmanship. It's not flashy. But Ang Lee basically asks us at the end of the movie to look back across its arc, and I was a little surprised at how deeply it resonated for something that seemed very humble as I was watching it.
I'm reminded of last year's Saving Face, which faced similar barriers as "the Chinese lesbian movie" (I could probably write a whole other post on why one of them is about gay cowboys and the other is Chinese lesbians). Both movies work better if you can ignore the PR and watch them as the genre films they actually are. This isn't to say that the homosexual aspects of each aren't important, since both of them integrate those aspects into the plot and into the characters. But it's a far cry from, say, Bound, where the lesbian relationship is almost completely a gimmick that cashes in early and is then discarded. Even if that movie treated sexuality respectfully (again, another post completely), its meta-thematic representation was exploitative. I think that the public labels for Saving Face and Brokeback Mountain are attempts to trivialize films that are willing to handle sexuality the same way they address any other aspect of character.
My inner optimist hopes that enough people will watch Brokeback that the narrative will be turned on its head. Instead of being the "gay cowboy movie," it'd be "the movie that everyone said was just gay cowboys, but was actually really good." It's not going to magically spread tolerance on its own, but it might crack the market open just a bit.
My inner pessimist says "Sure. Just like the waves of tolerance that swept America after Philadelphia and Will and Grace. How'd that 2004 election work out for you?"