Producers: Daniela Taplin Lundberg, Riva Marker, Eva Maroa Daniels, Cary Joji Fukunaga, Ryan W. Ahrens, Mark Wahlberg and Stephen Levinson Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green Screenplay: Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Reid Miller, Connie Britton, Maxwell Jenkins, Gary Sinise, Igby Rigney, Morgan Lily, Blaine Maye, Scout Smith and Cassie Beck Distributor: Roadside Attractions
In 2006 Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry won the Oscar for adapting Annie Proulx’s short story “Brokeback Mountain” for the screen, and the result was a watershed in mainstream gay film. They return with an original screenplay based on the real-life story of Joe Bell, an Oregon man who undertook a walk across the United States to raise awareness of the consequences of the bullying his gay son endured in school by speaking to student audiences along the way. It’s a sincere, earnest telling of a heartbreaking story, but undermined by deficiencies in acting and direction—simply put, Mark Wahlberg is no Heath Ledger and Reinaldo Marcus Green no Ang Lee.
But their deficiencies aren’t entirely responsible. In truth Ossana and McMurtry, writing from scratch, have produced a script more contrived and less compelling than the one they derived from Proulx’s fiction. In an attempt to add tension to the story, they don’t present in the strict chronological sequence, but shift back and forth in time. So they begin with Bell already on his walk, using flashbacks to tell the reasons behind it, which include, of course, the struggle of Jadin (Reid Miller) to cope with the relentless harassment of his classmates and the refusal of school authorities to do anything about it.
Part of the problem, however, was also Joe’s attitude toward his son. A gruff, virile fellow, he was insensitive, even hostile when Jadin came out, trying but failing to appear supportive when, for example, the boy decided to go out for the cheerleading squad rather than the football team. (One of the most heavy-handed scenes comes when he screams at Jadin for practicing in the front yard rather than out back.) That’s why the walk becomes so important for Joe—it’s a means not only for him to protest how Jadin was treated, but of redeeming himself, as his wife Lola (Connie Britton) suggests at one point.
His change of perspective is demonstrated not only in the walk and the brief speeches he gives, but in an encounter he has in Colorado with a sheriff (Gary Sinise) who invites him to a home-cooked meal. The lawman, as it turns out, had to deal with the fact that his son was gay too, and the two commiserate about what they, along with their boys, went through.
The effect of all this is to shift the emphasis of the film from Jadin, where it certainly belongs, to Joe, who by the end becomes a literal martyr to the cause he’s walking for. Ossana and McMurtry attempt to redress the imbalance, but to do so they employ a narrative tack that’s eventually revealed not only as a trick, but one that will be immediately apparent to anyone cognizant of the actual events. Joe is accompanied on his trek by Jadin, with whom he shares moments of mutual understanding but also reminders of the prejudice that Joe once expressed—sand perhaps still can’t come to terms with.
This device explains the back-and-forth chronological shifts in the film, allowing it to withhold information that leads not just to tragedy but, in the end, a double dose of it. On a simplistic emotional level it works, but on reflection it comes across as unduly manipulative. And in the end it keeps the focus, as the title implies, on the father rather than the son.
Still, the problems might have been minimized had the execution been better. Miller is excellent as Jadin, combining inner strength with poignant vulnerability, and Sinise offers his customary decency as the supportive sheriff. But while Wahlberg’s commitment cannot be doubted, his performance doesn’t fully capture the nuances of Joe’s character; he tries hard, but it comes off as too hard.
Nor is Green’s direction appreciably better. Simply put, it lacks subtlety; there’s a cable-movie quality to it, a fact accentuated by the adequate but uninspired work of the crafts team—cinematographer Jacques Jouffret, production designer Kelly McGehee, editor Mark Sanger and composer Antonio Pinto.
In many ways “Joe Bell” hearkens back to the movies and telefilms made about similar real-life stories even decades ago. It means well, but seems like a bit of a throwback at a time when gay-themed narratives have progressed substantially in terms of depth and acuity. This tale of the sad consequences of bigotry and one man’s struggle to combat it both in the world and himself is admirable in terms of intention, but less so in terms of accomplishment.