Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Brokeback Mountain


Dir: Ang Lee (The Wedding Banquet; Eat Drink Man Woman; The Ice Storm; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)

The blue state poster movie finally crept into red Saginaw, Michigan. And so too, did I finally creep into Brokeback Mountain. As a Valentine's Day date movie, no less!

The critical take on this movie cannot help but be colored by the public debate that surrounds it. Throughout, I found myself analyzing the strategic decision making of the writers and director. What are they going to show? How much are they going to address the firestorm they knew would come down against them? What is the ratio between politics and narrative for its own sake? On almost all of these points, the film makes the right calls. There is enough physical intimacy to avoid charges of self censorship, but not so much that the movie becomes about performing the taboo and not about the story itself. The movie references homophobia in several points, but does not dwell on it to the distraction of the rest of the film.

And the story is intriguing. The societal pressures that prevent our lovers from being together bring pain and destruction to those around them. It was the character of Alma, Heath Ledger's wife, that most compelled me. Her husband's inability to find his true love brings her misery and pain. She is best served by never having married him in the first place. The main couple's hurt is one thing, but homophobia here is shown to create ripple effects.

The dominant theme for me is not that homophobia is bad (yes, that's there of course) but that one should not let even the threat of death stop oneself from finding love anyway. Jack Twist knows this implicitly, he begs his lover to damn them all to hell and just do what they want. But the emotionally withdrawn side of the couple cannot do it; he selfishly denies himself what he wants (how's that for an oxymoron), and destroys everything around him. The final line of the movie drives this point home, the realization that in the future pressure from without should not dictate what is needed within.

I found this message sophisticated and applicable to the human condition in general. That homosexuality is the device through which this story is told is a wise and sensitive choice. The movie is filled with compassion.

But I cannot say it is the best film of the year. In terms of ambition and execution, Crash is my choice over BB (and I have yet to see the other three nominated films). The strategic choices I referenced earlier succeed in making Brokeback "just another love story" as Ron would have it be. That also makes it one among many movies exploring similar themes of love and infidelity. Brokeback is not significantly better than many of those, but Crash is peerless among recent films in its exploration of race relations.

Great film. Fine, fine love story. And at the late show on a 10 degree Saturday night, there were 15 people or so, including a gay couple, who came to see the movie in mid-Michigan. Nice.