Sunday, March 19, 2006

Movie Review: Brokeback Mountain

Or: "I Wish I Knew How To Classify You"

Ah, this one.

I realize I'm probably the last person to see this movie or review it, unless there's some Amish woman living in the Negative Zone with severe allergies to movie theatre popcorn.

"Brokeback Mountain" is an incredibly difficult movie for me to review, for several reasons. First, I never read the original story by Annie Proulx, so it's impossible to determine what and how much of the film is Proulx, and how much is Ang Lee - which means I can't really analyze the film as an adaptation, only in terms of the final product.

Second, I'm fighting the urge to give it obligatory points simply because it's unapologetic about its subject matter - considering how conservative America is (to say nothing of Hollywood as an American institute), "Brokeback Mountain" probably deserves some credit simply for being what it is. But I do feel that sometimes the critical schools skew a bit in favor of being politically correct; any gay or lesbian movie that's halfway competent gets praised simply so the possibility of prejudice doesn't rear its ugly head. It's been the case in Israel as well, where movies such as "Yossi and Jagger" or "Walk on Water" might have been good, but certainly weren't deserving of the enormous accolades and hype heaped upon them.

And finally, the biggest issue I have with this movie is that I can't reconcile it as a love story. Having mulled it over a bit, I realize that I don't actually see "Brokeback Mountain" as a romance at all. Yes, it's certainly true that love and sex are deeply intertwined, but this story presents a total conflation; we're asked to see Jack and Ennis as tragic lovers, but all they do is fuck. Anything that transcends the physical never comes into the discourse.

Now, to be fair, that's probably the point, that their relationship couldn't go any further because of social restrictions... but at the same time, these guys don't even admit their love to each other. The closest they come is acknowledging that "something" overtakes them when they're together - but that can be construed as hormonal, not emotional. Even the film's famous line, "I wish I knew how to quit you", can be read as an admission of sexual addiction, not romantic attachment.

The obstacle here is that when the film suggests the characters have fallen in love, my automatic response is "How could they?" They don't act like they're in love, at least not the way we define love today (and the film is set in the second half of the 20th century - it's not like we're dealing with a completely different culture). They barely see each other, and when they're apart fidelity is a foreign notion; Jack in particular becomes something of a village bicycle. The narrative is riddled with enormous chronological leaps, which means there's no real process of development you can observe. One second you're watching an army of sheep that would put Peter Jackson to shame, the next our boys are playing tonsil hockey.

As an aside, kudos to Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger for excellent performances in general, and for going all-out during the intimate scenes specifically. The women of the world salute you, gentlemen. ;)

However, no amount of conviction can resolve the issue at hand; at the end of the day, maybe Jack Twist is just a fantastic shag and that's all Ennis wants. Maybe it's an easy way for him to cheat on a boring wife without taking on more responsibilities. And maybe Jack fetishizes the rodeo so much that he needs sex to be as close to that as possible: with Ennis, all he has to do is spread his legs, brace himself and ride until he gets thrown. And when Ennis isn't in the picture, he marries a fellow rider and hits on a rodeo clown.

If you look at "Brokeback Mountain" not as a love story but as a story about sex and passion, about damaged individuals relying on a physical connection to escape their problems, the movie might actually come out stronger for it; when we reach those closing moments, and Ennis finally displays an emotion beyond the physical for Jack, it's more poignant if you believe he simply hadn't thought about that possibility until it was too late. He only lets himself feel love when it no longer matters. But that interpretation is more or less the antithesis of everything Proulx and Lee have claimed the movie is about.