Brokeback Mountain is a serious, artful film by one of our finest directors. The subject matter is groundbreaking (the first mainstream Hollywood film to deal so openly with male homosexuality) and culturally significant. The acting is terrific, the settings spectacular. It may very well be in the running for the Best Picture Oscar.
Why then did I find myself feeling so removed and unmoved?
Sexual orientation probably played a role in feeling removed. My favorite films tend to be love stories. Am I only capable of responding to heterosexual love stories? Certainly possible.
Or maybe Brokeback Mountain isn't really a love story?#34;or not enough of one.
It is, however, a romance?#34;the story of a love affair that puts the lovers in conflict with the world at large.
But this seems to be more of a film about the tragic consequences of emotional repression, a theme director Ang Lee has visited several times before, most notably in The Ice Storm, but also in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and The Hulk, all of which, by the way, I found moving?#34;even The Hulk. Lee may well be the master of repression, which explains why Heath Ledger's character, Ennis Del Mar, is the emotional center of the film. Or the unemotional center. Ledger does a terrific job of conveying the capped volcano that is Ennis, a man at war with himself and his culture's male role requirements. He meets the love of his life on Brokeback Mountain at the age of 19 and spends the next 20 years trying to come to terms with the fact that it's another man, all the while attempting to fit into the rest of his world.
The sexual encounters were not as uncomfortable to watch as I imagined, but they were rough, almost explosive, mostly male aggressiveness, not much in the way of tenderness. I expect homosexual expressions of physical love run the gamut just as heterosexual expressions do, and I've always found Hollywood depictions of sex to be too athletic and theatrical, more sex than love, more physical than emotional, and that is largely the case here.
The film is long?#34;too long, I think?#34;following both men through the ensuing 20 years, as each creates a life, from which they escape three times a year for a rendezvous back on the mountain. Ennis' lover, Jack, is the romantic. He wants to find a place where the two can live their lives together. Ennis is the realist, having seen as a child the traumatic consequences of such a union. He knows the world they live in would never tolerate it. He also has daughters he's committed to. He's stuck between worlds and ultimately can't make either work.
The characters are appealing and sympathetic. They're in a no-win situation, and it's not their fault. But I was genuinely moved only once, and that was when Ennis experiences a momentary emotional connection?#34;strangely enough with Jack's mother, a kindred, emotionally-repressed soul, who instinctively seems to understand Ennis.
The problem with the love affair is that we don't see the relationship develop. The physical need and passionate bond are clear. But to raise the story to another level it needed to move beyond the sexual to a maturing, deepening love relationship. Perhaps that's the ultimate tragedy?#34;that their situation doesn't allow this to happen.
The film has great integrity. It resists the overdramatizing and cheap emotional climaxes that afflict too many films about love. The resulting effect is muted, understated. That's refreshing, and I applaud it, but I still wanted more.
I saw Brokeback Mountain with a small group of friends, all of whom liked it better than I did, and it provided plenty of fodder for lively discussion afterward. Other films have focused on homosexuality (Rent and Delovely spring to mind), but this film will likely be considered significant historically because it breaks new ground?#34;the first homosexual love story that heterosexuals will see in large numbers and be forced to take seriously because of its undeniable quality. That's a good thing.
But I can't help wishing the love story?#34;and the emotional impact?#34;were stronger.