Same job, different uniform.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

"Brokeback Mountain" Review

Disclaimer 1: If you haven’t seen this movie and you want to, don’t read this post because I’m going to give it away.

Disclaimer 2: If you think I’m going to give you some kind of graphic details, have no fear. (While the love scenes are probably going to be somewhat uncomfortable for any heterosexual, they are hardly the lurid stuff of rumours.)

Let me start by saying that as anyone who knows me would tell you, I am a George Bush loving conservative. I think the Iraq war is right and abortion is wrong. Terry Schiavo was murdered. Richard Nixon is over-demonized. Reagen had tremendous foresight, and George Bush is no idiot.

I love cowboys. I love a good Western. I have loved Clint Eastwood from afar, literally for as long as I can remember. Homosexuality is wrong. Adultery is wrong.

So I think I should have hated Brokeback Mountain. But I didn’t. I was moved to tears. Heartbroken even.

When Brokeback Mountain first came out, I read a quote somewhere by a member of the crew who said, “conservatives are going to like this movie.” Well this conservative did, and here’s my theory on why that comment makes sense.

While I’m sure a significant portion of the gay population would disagree, I believe much, if not most, homosexuality, is environmental; not natural. In my own extended family there is strong evidence to support this. Abusive, or even just overbearing parents can have a profound effect on a child’s tender psyche both in childhood and throughout life.

It has long been accepted that young girls tend to “marry their fathers” – seeking out men, for better or worse, who exemplify the man that raised them . . . or neglected them, or abused them, or abandoned them. What are the lyrics to that John Mayer song? “Oh, you see that skin? It's the same she's been standing in since the day she saw him walking away; Now she's left cleaning up the mess he made . . Fathers be good to your daughters; Daughters will love like you do; Girls become lovers who turn into mothers . . . .”

Well, why is this any less true of a father’s impact on his sons? And why is it any less possible that a son would seek out in relationships the things he didn’t get from an abusive or at least emotionally vacant father? I have a 2-year-old son. And he loves his mama – but when his dad comes home from work, or his Uncle Jake comes over, or his “older” friends Jacob, Cooper, or Conner are around – it’s all about them. 150 percent. Mom fades to black. They play loud, push, run, fall down, yell, laugh, even giggle. I think there are some very good single moms out there who’ve done as well as they possibly could raising boys on their own – but I guarantee that in most cases they have not done it as well as if there had a been a loving father in the picture. Boys need men to love them as much as girls do.

Throughout Brokeback Mountain there are allusions, references, or brief flashbacks to each characters’ life that indicated to me a father who was at the very least cold, maybe even abusive. Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) tells Ennis (Heath Ledger) in one of the opening scenes, that the reason he works for sheep-rancher Joe Aquirre (Randy Quaid) each summer, despite the hard work and unreasonable expectations, is because “it beats workin’ for my old man.” And in the end of the movie we meet his father and see why that first statement was probably true. He is clearly bitter and seemingly unmoved by the death of his son, only barely tolerating Ennis’s presence when he comes to express his condolences and try to take some of Jack’s ashes up to Brokeback Mountain where Jack asked that they be scattered. Jack’s father refuses, knowing full well why this was his son’s request and who Ennis is.

In a later scene, Jack tells Ennis that he wants a real relationship – not just a fling on Brokeback Mountain. Ennis replies flatly that it won’t happen, that if they got caught, they could end up dead. Then he proceeds to recount a childhood memory, which the movie flashes back to, about “two old guys ranched up together” and how one day the locals took a tire iron to one of them, dragged him around until he was dead and then left him in a ditch to rot. In the memory Ennis is no more than nine and, as he says, “My daddy, he made sure me and my brother seen it. . . Hell for all I know, he done the job.” As we watch the flashback, the camera moves in close to the face of this horrified little boy staring at a bloody, mutilated corpse. There are freckles across his sun-browned nose, dirt in the fine creases around his eyes, and we see his father’s hand on the back of his neck. It is not a loving touch. As we watch, his large fingers press hard into the flesh around the tendons on the side of Ennis’s neck, warning him.

I don’t offer the above explanation as a defense of homosexuality, because truly I believe it is wrong. Even if you didn’t believe it was wrong in and of itself, at the very least you’d have to agree it was wrong in a relationship where the two participants are both married to other people. Rare is the movie these days that really sanctions adultery (although “Walk the Line” did and there wasn’t much hue and cry over it from the conservative community).

But right or wrong, homosexuality does exist. As a Christian conservative I’m not blind to that fact. It’s reality. But I think it exists for reasons related to a fallen world; not God’s perfect design. The argument can be made that Brokeback Mountain, however subtly, presents it not as accidental reality owing itself to a genetic lottery, but as consequential reality; sins of the fathers. And this, for me, made it something that I could relate to with compassion even if I disagreed with it. Who among us, cannot relate on some level to the human condition we each suffer at the hands of others.

There is no doubt that the movie sets out to make you feel for its main characters. But it doesn’t make any attempt to gloss over the negative impact of their affair. Everyone around Ennis and Jack is undone by it – their children, their wives, their in-laws. It is painful to watch Ennis’s oldest daughter try to understand why she isn’t a priority in his life. Jack’s son becomes a vacant child marked with the sign of an unimpeachable Texas-upbringing: zombie-like attention to football. There is no indication that either child knows of their father’s homosexual love affair, but they are profoundly affected nonetheless.

Their wives are bitter and pathetic in their attempts to grapple with their marital reality. Ennis’s wife (Michelle Williams) probably garners more sympathy from viewers because she actually deals with the situation, however painfully. Jack’s wife (Ann Hathaway) becomes cold and mostly unlikable - an overly blonde, large-haired Texan with bright lips and fingernails. But there is a moment late in the movie, as she is telling Ennis about Jack’s death, when the camera moves in close to her face and in her eyes you can see this intense, almost throbbing pain. Even though you find her mostly repulsive, you still feel for just how crappy this must have been for her too.

Brokeback Mountain convinced me to feel compassion for two gay characters. But it didn’t make me agree with the homosexuality. And I don’t think it was trying to. The negative consequences of their relationship are everywhere. Ennis becomes little more than a lonely ne’r do well living in a beat-up trailer on the outskirts of his Wyoming town. So convincing is his dejection that you wonder that he can even enjoy a slice of pie he eats by himself in a half-empty diner. Jack is promiscuous, finding sex in Mexico when he can’t be with Ennis. If he hadn’t died the way he does in the movie, he surely would have met his end virally in the AIDS-soaked 80’s. Neither man’s children are priorities for them. They devastate their wives - women they married, despite knowing that they'd never properly love them.

Certainly, there are peripheral characters that are meant to represent a place, a time and a society that even today probably wouldn’t “cotton” to queer cowboys. But this is hardly the theme of the movie. You never believe that this is working out for Jack and Ennis.

If Brokeback Mountain is meant to be some kind of endorsement of homosexuality well then I didn’t get it and I’d have to give it an “F.” But if it is supposed to be a small, poetic illustration of one part of the human condition it does an achingly good job.

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Blogger St Luke said...

I'm a gay man a few years younger than the characters in Brokeback Mountain would have been. Your comments, like those of other Christian reviewers, surprised me by their compassion with the gay characters, and honestly I have come to expect nothing but hatred from that quarter. This message is a plea that Christians help find a place in society for gay people in the real world.

First, I would like to agree with you about the cause of homosexuality. There is no doubt in my mind that it has both genetic and environmental components, and you are likely right that the latter are more important. You are probably aware that the coincidence of homosexuality in identical twins raised apart is far less that 100%. (But over 50% as well, suggesting a genetic factor. I didn't look it up, but as I recall it was about 66% in the study I have in mind.)

In my own case, my father was stereotypically cold and emotionally absent. When I was young, I consciously recognized that I was looking for the father I really never had in the men I had relationships with.

By the way, I have been celibate for a number of years, probably because of guilt instilled by my Christian upbringing, which may be good from Christians' point of view, but it leaves me a lonely and unhappy man.

But, whatever the cause of my attraction to other men, I never felt I really had a choice in the matter. When I was young, the sexual urge was overpowering and irresistable. Once a person has acted on the urges and had positively reinforcing sexual experiences, the die is cast. I have made (admittedly halfhearted) efforts to change my orientation, but I really think that is beyond the conscious control of all but a few gay men.

As you say, gay people exist. The question is, how should our society deal with the fact. There are really two options: ruthlessly suppressing homosexuality like we used to do, or making a place for gay people.

To justify taking away gay people's freedom to freely associate together, violate our privacy and throw out all the usual standards of fairness (which is the way we as a society dealt with gay people until the 70s), there has to be a compelling social interest. What great damage does tolerating gay behavior do, that that is justified?

As I mentioned, I was raised as a Christian and have some familiarity with the Bible, so I will presume to tackle the issue on theologic grounds as well. There are roughly six references in the entire bible that can be construed to be about homosexuality. They all seem to me to be ambiguous except the one in Leviticus, which is found among the Jewish laws that Christians don't follow. Christ himself had nothing to say on the subject. He was very critical of divorce, however. The fact that even the most conservative Christians tolerate divorce but refuse to consider making a place for us strikes me as seeing the speck in the other person's eye while not noticing the beam in your own.

I am a productive, law-abiding citizen who has not fulfilled his potential as a human being. I have not been unable to ignore the condemnations of the 25% of the population that is conservative Christian. Because I have taken that to heart, I expect to get old alone. I think I would personally be better off, and a better citizen, if I was living in a committed relationship with another man.

Thank you for considering my point of view.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Blogger girlfriday said...

This is probably the most honest review of Brokeback Mountain anywhere on the web.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Blogger Julie said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Blogger St Luke said...


Your response isn't preachy, but warm and understanding. Neither of us will likely make much progress in convincing the other, but it's nice to have a respectfull conversation across the chasm created by the culture wars.

By the way, I agree with girlfriday's comment above. Your review of Brokeback Mountain was exceptional, one of the few best I've read about a movie that broke my heart, too.

With respect to changing sexual orientation, I think it almost always fails because people don't want to change. The sexual drive is right up there in priority among the top two or three instincts. The heart wants what it wants, there's no reasoning with it, and trying to overcome your deepest desires for the sake of respectability or social convention has to fail. Gay people who try to live according to religious strictures can choose to be celibate, but even if their lives are dominated by the effort to be chaste and they succeed at that, the heart is unimpressed and keeps desiring the forbidden. Encouraging a gay man to go straight and marry a woman is likely to end badly, unless both parties know the score going in and are willing to settle for childless companionship and not a real marriage. (That is an option I have considered for myself at times, but even in a sexless relationship I would still much prefer to be with a man.)

I respectfully submit that the ruined lives in the movie resulted from the social pressure that made these men, who wanted each other, feel they had to get married. I don't disagree that, having gotten married, they needed to live up to their responsibilities to their wives and children.

My personal dilemma will sort itself out in time, I hope, and I will ask God's guidance.

Christians should, and no doubt will, stick to their beliefs about sexual behavior, but gay people are here and aren't going anywhere. It is not good for our country that we fight each other when we're threatened from outside, and we need to come to an accomodation we can all live with.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Blogger girlfriday said...

PS: St. Luke, if you ever launch a blog, we'll link to it! Come back around.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Blogger St Luke said...

Will do. Nice talking to you.

Friday, February 17, 2006


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