Editor's note: This film depicts a homosexual relationship, and includes a graphic sex scene between the two men. After much discussion, Christianity Today Movies has decided to review the film despite its controversial subject matter. It has been nominated for seven Golden Globe Awards and will certainly be an Oscar contender. The film is a hot topic of conversation around the nation, and we'd be remiss to simply ignore it. Part of our mission statement is "to inform and equip Christian moviegoers to make discerning choices" about what films you'll watch—or won't watch. And this review, just like all of our reviews, certainly accomplishes that. As for the 3-star rating, that is only in reference to the quality of the filmmaking, the acting, the cinematography, etc. It is not a "recommendation" to see the film, nor is it a rating of the "moral acceptability" of the subject matter.
It took eight years for Brokeback Mountain to make its way from the pages of The New Yorker to the big screen. Larry McMurty (Lonesome Dove) adapted the script from what was originally conceived as a short story by Annie Proulx, and Ang Lee finally took over the directorial reins after a couple of other helmers (Gus Van Sant and Joel Schumacher) took a pass. And while it's not unusual for a script to get stymied in production, it's undoubtedly true that, in this case, the central characters played a role in the delay—two cowboys who fall in love … with each other.
Spanning 20 years, the relationship between Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) begins in 1963 when the two are given the job of watching sheep during a summer up on Wyoming's Brokeback Mountain. They're both gangly young Marlboro Men in the making—Jack with a boyish energy that belies his rodeo dreams and Ennis with a set jaw that rarely moves. Together they tend the sheep and make dinner and fall into the rhythms of life on the mountain. Loosened up by camaraderie and whiskey, Ennis becomes, if not exactly talkative, open. And he and Jack sit around the fire late into the night talking about their histories and hopes for their futures.
When a cold night prompts the two to share a small tent, the physical intimacy that ensues is at first awkward and then almost desperate in its drive to be experienced. As an extension of their growing relationship, this first sexual encounter seems less than romantic. And, as they both assert the morning after, certainly neither man is "queer."
But they're still drawn to each other. And where the romance was perhaps lacking at first, it begins to build steam as Jack and Ennis begin to look each other in the eyes—and want what they see. The men seem to be fumbling for each other, for any meaningful connection with one another—at turns kissing and hitting; tenderly caressing and drawing blood; loving and hating. It's a dance they would repeat for years to come.
Ang Lee's varied body of work (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Sense and Sensibility; The Ice Storm; Hulk) remains cohesive largely in its reverence for landscapes. And here he adds the American West to his visual repertoire, reflecting the contours of the relationship between Jack and Ennis in the harsh brilliance of the natural world in which it takes place. Rodrigo Prieto's beautiful cinematography frames majestic but treacherous mountains rimmed with snow. Expansive blue skies that can rain down golf-ball sized hail. Pristine lakes that ward off would-be swimmers with their chill.
And as their summer on the mountain ends, the scenery, and the world, closes in on the men. They go their separate ways. Four years pass before they see each other again, and in that time both marry and become fathers. Ennis swaps vows with Alma (Michelle Williams) and has two daughters. Jack gets roped by Lureen (Anne Hathaway), a Texas rodeo queen. Once the men do reunite, it's clear that Jack is simply biding time, hoping for a future with Ennis. Ennis, on the other hand, is resigned to his life with Alma. He's haunted by a childhood memory: the specter of a man he saw beaten to death for living with another man. He sees no viable scenario in which he and Jack can be together.
"If you can't fix it, you gotta stand it," says Ennis. He and Jack accomplish that by meeting up for "fishing trips" during which no fishing takes place. Over the course of these years, Jack is feeling perpetually jilted on his drives back home to Texas, while Ennis' efforts to resist his love for Jack turn him into an angry, bitter drunk who's always looking for a fight. Years fly by in which neither man is fully engaged with his family, while pining for a person he only sees sporadically. Their furtive love isolates them and makes their worlds smaller until they see no one but each other.
But despite the intimacy these two want to share, there's a certain formalism between Jack and Ennis that stems from their seeming inability to admit, even to each other, who each of them is. A conversation late in the movie includes Jack referencing an affair he's supposedly having with a ranch foreman's wife when the audience knows that the affair is actually with the foreman himself. Ennis, in return, goes into a homophobic rage when Jack lets on that he goes down to Mexico for gay sex. It's likely the result of a number of factors, but both men are deeply unsettled by their homosexuality.
The narrative's focus on Jack and Ennis means that the audience is left largely to guess at the painful ramifications the men's infidelities have on their families. It's the movie's greatest weakness that it never fully develops the wives' characters, and they're often relegated to cliché s. After a big splash, Lureen becomes little more than a peroxide blonde prop whose true feelings about her husband are inscrutable. Michelle Williams is, thankfully, given more screen time, and her quivering heartbreak and eventual rage are among the most resonant emotions of the movie.
But for all the potential messiness of a story about two married men who carry on an affair with each other, the movie maintains an emotional distance from its subject by focusing almost exclusively on the men involved, both of whom are characters trying to stuff their emotions to one extent or another. Brokeback Mountain creates vast plains of space for the audience to interpret Jack and Ennis' actions and the hopes and fears that motivate them. It's quite possible that no matter what the viewer believes about homosexuality, he or she will be able to read their own stance on the issue into this story.
The film has already earned seven nominations for the Golden Globes, and multiple Oscar nominations are all but certain to follow. Ledger and Williams—who both earned Globes noms—especially stand out, both conveying reams of emotion with dialogue that probably only covers a few pages. But as much as Brokeback Mountain is being touted as a groundbreaking movie for its depictions of homosexuality, it is populated with people with conventional attitudes about homosexuality. And though it's presented as a story of thwarted love—of ache and longing and regrets—it's also ultimately a story about the relationships that shape us … for better and for worse.Discussion starters
- The tagline for Brokeback Mountain is, "Love is a force of nature." Do you agree? Do we get to choose whom we fall in love with? Do we get to choose our sexual orientation? Why or why not?
- Scripture says homosexual sex is sinful (Lev. 18:22, 20:13; Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 6:9-11). How should the church engage those who hold different beliefs about homosexuality? Should Christians expect all people to be heterosexuals? Why or why not? What does this mean for how Christians should treat gays?
- Ennis' parents died when he was young. Do you think the loneliness he experienced as a child played into his attraction to Jack? If yes, how so? When he got married, why didn't Alma's love satisfy his need for companionship?
- Do Ennis and Jack love each other because they're gay, or are they gay because they love each other? Explain. Had they never met, do you think one or both of them would have happily lived a heterosexual life? Why or why not? What does that say about the nature of sexual orientation?
- Ennis and Jack determine that their bond is no one else's business. Can love—gay or straight—stay secret and be and/or remain healthy? Why or why not?
- How should Christians approach films that depict gay relationships? What, if anything, can we learn from such movies? About the gay culture? About ourselves?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Brokeback Mountain is rated R for sexuality, nudity, language and some violence. There's a graphic gay sex scene, and female nudity (showing breasts) in two other scenes. There are also brief but graphic scenes of violence. There's also plenty of coarse language.
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Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 12/22/05
Director Ang Lee (Hulk, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, The Ice Storm) has stirred up the year's biggest big screen controversy. He's made a film full of technical excellence—strong performances, enthralling scenery, delicate scripting. Thus, many film critics are praising Brokeback Mountain for its strengths. But Lee has also focused on a story in which two cowboys fall in love—and have sex—with each other, even after they go on to have wives and families. That, as you can imagine, is furrowing a few brows.
Christian film critics are approaching their reviews in different ways. Most acknowledge that homosexuality is considered a sin. And they also acknowledge that Ang Lee portrays those who reject homosexuality as old-fashioned, naï ve, and oppressive. Some Christian critics respond by completely condemning the film. Some even stoop to labeling it with derogatory nicknames; one Christian critic even called the Golden Globe Awards, which gave Brokeback several nominations, the "Golden Gropes." Some seek to sift through it, acknowledging what is well done, and questioning what is faulty. And others think it's a sin to consider the film at all.
Some of this wide range of opinions is evidenced in the feedback coming in for the review at Christianity Today Movies. And some of it is evidenced in the controversy over the review from the Catholic News Service. As readers protested the CNS's initial classification of the film, the pressure caused the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops to revise their rating from "L" to "O."
Here is a sampling of the Christian press reviews of the film:
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) stirred things up, saying, "Lee tells the story with a sure sense of time and place, and presents the narrative in a way that is more palatable than would have been thought possible. … The performances are superb. Australian Ledger may be the one to beat at Oscar time, as his repressed manly stoicism masking great vulnerability is heartbreaking, and his Western accent sounds wonderfully authentic. Gyllenhaal is no less accomplished as the more demonstrative of the pair, while Williams and Hathaway … are very fine."
Forbes concludes, "Looked at from the point of view of the need for love which everyone feels but few people can articulate, the plight of these guys is easy to understand while their way of dealing with it is likely to surprise and shock an audience. … While the actions taken by Ennis and Jack cannot be endorsed, the universal themes of love and loss ring true."
Digging much deeper into how the film works, Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) writes, "Brokeback Mountain is a work of art, more concerned with telling a story about characters than with making sure that the viewer feels a certain way about a moral issue."
He continues, "That's not to say that Brokeback Mountain doesn't have a point of view. It does have a point of view—a profoundly problematic one, one that makes it potentially far more insidious than mere propaganda. All the same, it doesn't commit the artistic fraud of shaping every single element in its story to move the viewer's sympathies in one and only one direction. That sort of one-sidedness is increasingly the single thing that I find most quickly sabotages a film's persuasiveness; nothing else so glaringly announces that the filmmaker himself hasn't really put his own point of view to the test, and doesn't trust the audience to see things his way unless he stacks the deck in his own favor."
Steven Isaac (Plugged In) says, "Taiwanese director Ang Lee … certainly doesn't soft-sell the damage done by the choices Jack and Ennis make. But you don't walk away from Brokeback Mountain thinking about the destructiveness of acting on homosexual temptations. Rather, you're left with the idea that these cowboy-lovers would have experienced none of this pain if only social and moral norms had allowed them to pursue their passion from the get-go."
He points out that the obstacles to Jack and Ennis's relationship are, in fact, good things. "Usually it's a negative thing when people give in to the societal norms around them and give up on their dreams, refuse to step across racial divides, etc. But here, Ennis' reluctance to live with Jack is a good example of how established—biblical—morality within a culture can help people make right decisions. (It isn't a pressure so strong that it keeps him from repeatedly having sex with Jack, though.)"
J. Robert Parks (Looking Closer) says, "If Brokeback's last 90 minutes were as good as its first 45, I'd agree that it's one of the best films of the year. But the last two-thirds … are genuinely disappointing. The biggest problem is that the narrative shifts from covering a summer in almost an hour to traversing 20 years in just an hour and a half. It's like a rock skipping across a pond, hitting the high points of the relationship and then dribbling out at the end."from Film Forum, 01/05/06
My full review of Ang Lee's film is online at Looking Closer, along with some reflections on the way that other Christians have received the film.from Film Forum, 01/12/06
Andrew Coffin (World) says, "Pundits are hailing Brokeback Mountain … as having the potential to do for homosexuality what Guess Who's Coming to Dinner did for race. The love story it presents is so sympathetic, goes the conventional wisdom, that even denizens of red states will be won over to accept gay love. But the movie is too condescending to ordinary Americans and too anti-marriage to make such an impact."
He adds, "Life with their families is all crying babies, demanding wives, and hard, frustrating work. Gay sex with a kindred spirit in the glorious outdoors is portrayed as so much better. But the symbolism is all wrong. The movie associates homosexuality with nature—magnificent mountains, big sky, clear blue water, teeming forests—as contrasted with the constraints of a tacky, empty civilization."