Review: Brokeback Mountain

What follows is half-review and half-reflection, as you will see. Amy and I recently finished watching Brokeback Mountain, the controversial film about two sheepherders who fall in love (maybe) and go on to lead tragically broken lives, all the while pining after each other. The Oscar-winning film is truly a work of art, albeit one with many flaws. From a technical perspective, the movie is one of the best of the year, hands down: the acting is superb, the direction is quite good, the script is phenomenal, and the cinematography is stunning (although it's hard to go wrong in the mountains of Alberta). And yet, for all its technical perfection, the film left me (and Amy) rather empty and unsatisfied. I knew when I was supposed to cry, but I didn't cry. And when the credits rolled at the end, I was left feeling like something was off. Something just wasn't quite right.

This movie is definitely worth watching, so I won't do anything to ruin it for those who wish to see it (and everyone who is comfortable should see it). But some aspects of the film beg to be discussed. First, despite the fact the movie's script is adapted from a short story, the film feels like it was derived from a lengthy novel. You know when the scriptwriter is trying his or her best to adapt from a long written work when the film only shows you the moments of conflict between characters, leaving you to imagine the rest by filling in the blanks. Surprisingly, that is how Brokeback Mountain feels almost from the beginning. Even the director, Ang Lee, and others on the "making of" special feature talk about the film metaphorically as a boxing match, in which the film displays the various moments of contact between boxers. The problem with this approach is that the audience is unable to really empathize with the characters. The film shows so little tenderness between Jack and Innis that one is left feeling confused about their relationship. "Where is the love?" I kept asking myself.

Second, following from the first, the film keeps all of the characters in different levels of haziness and obscurity. There is so little screen time with most of the characters that you hardly ever get to know who they are with any sort of depth. Jack and Innis are complex enough to make keep the story going, but everyone else (except for the wives) appears for a couple scenes and then is suddenly gone. Even the wives do not receive the kind of complex treatment that is necessary. At least one character (Innis's later female love interest) is superfluous and takes story time away from others who deserve more development. Furthermore, most of the conflict is between Jack and Innis, even though the story would have been much more provocative with more family tension, particularly with the wives and children.

Third, the movie's love story between Jack and Innis just doesn't feel believable, at least not until near the end of the film (though the very end wasn't what I hoped for, another let-down). And unlike other love stories, I didn't like the characters enough to feel their emotions. This is the risk which the film took (whether positive or negative, and probably both): the makers of the movie chose characters which most audiences will not sympathize with; they are not inherently likable characters, and that is a huge risk in a love story. Even though I wanted them to be happy, I kept getting angry at them, at least at one of them. They were frustrating to watch.

Part of the frustration is that the supposed 'love story' rarely showed love and tenderness. When they first have sex, it's clearly out of drunkenness and their own sexual needs. But what is missing from the story is how they can go from a rough sexual encounter to a meaningful relationship. There's a missing link that the film does not provide, at least not in any emotionally satisfying form.

So in the end I feel like there are two ways of reading this movie: either (1) the film is showing a relationship entirely in its moments of tension, so that the audience is left to imagine the rest, or (2) the film views homosexual relationships as entirely sexual in nature, rough and animalistic. The former means the film does a poor job of communicating emotions and portraying characters that feel real. The second means the film does a poor job of communicating a believable relationship, at least one that has enough substance to it to maintain itself for 25 years+.

Either way, what the film is not -- and as all the people involved with the film claim repeatedly -- is the "All-American Love Story." Quite frankly, I have no idea what this means. Regardless of the film's merits or demerits, why the assumption that cowboys represent true Americanness? Why is the rugged Midwest the epitome of what it means to be American, when a high majority of U.S. citizens live in cities? And why call this movie an All-American Love Story when (regardless of the homosexuality) the story is blatantly abnormal in virtually every way -- except that they do not end up happy, which is perhaps closer to reality than anything else.

What I am continually disturbed by with this "All-American" rhetoric is the nationalistic, parochial pride that it displays. First, a homosexual love story is not unique to the U.S., so the only real "American" element would have to be the Western setting, with cowboys and Texas playing major roles. But why elevate this setting above others as being All-American? Is it less American to be in a suburb or a metropolitan center? Is it less American to ride in a car rather than ride a horse to work? What is the point of such rhetoric?

Brokeback Mountain is a decent film. Technically brilliant, the story lacks the heart I expected. I had hoped for a beautiful and moving film. What I got was just a beautiful film. Worthy of its nomination, but nothing more. Good Night, and Good Luck is still the best film of the year.

Comments

timcoe said…
My guess is that the 'All-American' rhetoric is an attempt to normalize homosexuality, thereby making Brokeback Mountain a love story rather than an Issue Film. The cynic in me suggests that this is so that more people will pay to see it.

And I agree with your citicisms. I felt that the film tried too hard to be Epic, and Meaningful, and Emotional (cf. the last few shots of the film, which suddenly soared into schmaltz), when I really wanted it to simply tell me a story.
Bethany said…
Out of curiosity, which one, Innis or Jack, kept annoying you?
D.W. Congdon said…
Definitely Ennis. (I misspelled his name. My apologies. Thanks to Amy for pointing that out.)
Onanite said…
I appreciate your review of the movie. I had a bit of a different take on it. Since I am a gay man that would be about the age of the two leads in the time period of the film, I saw many things that resonated.

First off, I would really not consider the two main characters "gay." I think they would have to be considered bisexuals that had conflicted ideas about love. They themselves really did not understand their feeling for each other, and the director brought this out wonderfully.

We were not meant to understand their relationship, because they themselves could not come to grips with it. They were at the same time drawn together and torn apart. The best thing about the movie is it did not make the typical Hollywood leap to some unrealistic resolution.

Growing up in the 60's and 70's I understand that even as an almost exclusively gay man. Bisexuals of that era were even more confused.

I don't know if I have the words needed to make my point, sorry.

BTW, I like your Blog.

Cheers,
Onanite
D.W. Congdon said…
Onanite, thanks very much for the comment. You helped to clarify a few things for me.

A common question that I've heard asked (but never answered) is whether or not this film actually resonates with gay men in the U.S. The fact that it does for you is helpful, and perhaps I will appreciate the film more seeing it through your eyes.

Glad you find your way to my site!
i can affirm that yes, the film resonated greatly with gay men in the US.

as for timcoe and your talk about "all-american", you cannot fault a film for failing to be what some hype said it was. the hype may be wrong but that does not make the film worse.

however, the "all-american" part is really about the sense in which the story involved some characteristic american themes; particularly the life-on-the-frontier, the build-your-own-world, the what-we-do-is-completely-new, all of which are central parts of american mythos.

you see little tenderness, but my memory is of extraordinary tenderness. i think the point (just guessing) may be that you do not recognize the cues. i have heard that straight people watching the film have often found it hard to sympathize with the characters, but frankly, i think that is the fault of the straight people, not the characters. if one has a blunt empathy for gay people, one will not sympathize.

moreover, a deep and complex part of the story is the way that the dynamic of liberation and oppression are not strictly external factors. the characters in this movie are participants in their own oppression, even as they are deeply hurt by it. if you want the oppressed to rise up in a blaze of glory, then The Mission may be the film to watch.

for gay people, this is a message that must be told, and told again; what makes life so hard for Ennis and Jack is, in large measure, their own unwillingness to make it easier; they are participants in their own oppression.

i think a telling remark of yours is that the story would have been much more provocative with more family tension, particularly with the wives and children. except the story is not about the wives and the children, and in case you didn't notice, there was plenty of family tension: the very tension between Jack and Ennis is family tension. if you see their relationship as fundamentally something other than family, as some kind of alien thing, then you hope for the comfortable and familiar land of domestic heterosexual family, whether happy or in conflict.

for me, it was perfectly clear that Ennis and Jack's lives were about their moments together each year, and the rest was the time in which they would wait for the next year.

if you have never had the experience in which such a singular event can be overpoweringly the point of one's life in a romantic sense, then you look elsewhere. it becomes impossible to see the relationship as powerful and motivating, perhaps because you do not see it as possible. i diagnose, as a result, your reaction as a natural consequence of where you start.

you are worried that the film views homosexual relationships as entirely sexual in nature, rough and animalistic, but i think you have perhaps missed the point. there is one and only one "rough and animalistic" depiction of that sort: the first time the two make love. and yet, i don't think you recognize in that scene what tens of thousands of gay people did: far from rough and animalistic, it was honest, direct, and represented an emotional connection that they (at that point) could not put into words but could only put into action, in a way in which they were consumed and captivated by it.

if you grow up thinking that sexual love is a normal thing, which you will surely experience in its due course, i suspect that the experience may be somewhat muted. for gay people (and especially for characters such as Ennis and Jack) one grows up fundamentally not thinking of such a thing as even possible, and when it occurs, the experience is entirely different, since it was not preceded by a thousand cultural images supporting you and parents talking about dating and valentines cards; the discovery that such a thing is possible for you becomes an overpowering event.

and, i think, Ang Lee did an extraordinary job of portraying just that, through the set up of that one scene, and the actors brought it powerfully home with the expressions on their faces at the moment, and even the way they stirred their forks in their beans after.