DVD Review Of Brokeback Mountain

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/14/06


  It is incumbent upon all good critics to be honest about possible biases, so here goes. When I first read E. Annie Proulx’s short story collection Close Range, I knew Brokeback Mountain was, by far, the worst of the stories in her very erratic collection, and a really bad story, period. Not because it had gay characters, but because the whole book is a long string of Western stereotypes and caricatures. Reading the tale, it was quite obvious that Proulx has probably never met a gay person, much less a gay cowboy, in her entire life.

  However, after recently viewing the film that beat it out for the Oscar, Crash- a horrendous film, if there ever was one, I was prepared to concede that there was no possible way Brokeback Mountain, which I doubted could even be a passable film, could sink as low as Crash. After all, Crash crammed a dozen or so PC tales into its nightmare, whereas this film was only gonna force feed a viewer one PC tale. So buffered, I had made plans to begin my review of this film with something admitting the above, like, ‘Yes, Brokeback Mountain is better than Crash, but chlamydia is better than AIDS, so what’s the point?’ But, I now again have to rewrite how I approach dissecting this film, for, as I set forth to watch Ang Lee’s latest film, I was unprepared for just how interminably dull and poorly written and acted this film was.

  Yes, it’s terminally PC, and no, it’s not a love story, any more than the addle-minded and obnoxious young boob lovers in Titanic were in love. It’s a tale about, let’s face it, two horny queers who like branding each other in the wild. And yes, there is great scenery. This film trumps Crash cinematographically in every way. But, Crash sped through its many tales and characters so quickly that it was more like a music video, and, as a consequence, it was like a quick bug that, once you shat out its last bad remnant, the fever lifted within minutes. Brokeback Mountain is like a festering herpes sore that will take a week or two to go away, but you just know it’s gonna recur and damn your sleeping hours every now and then.

  The story of the film is so familiar that to reiterate it seems a waste of space, but here goes: quiet Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and flaming Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) are two queer cowboys who in 1963 are hired by Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid) to herd sheep up on a Wyoming mountain named Brokeback. There, after an opening silence reminiscent of the infinitely superior Once Upon A Time In The West, and nearly a half hour of scenery, admittedly lushly filmed by cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto, and little else, Jack takes Ennis’s hand to his groin as he sleeps, they wake, fight, and within seconds, Ennis is inexplicably battering Jack’s ass with his unprotected salami, moistened only by spit. I say inexplicably because, a few scenes earlier, Jack is cooking and Ennis strips naked to bathe, and neither man takes mind of what the other is doing, but a mere touch to the groin and….SPROING! Instant gays. Were they and their boners freeze-dried? Utterly absurd. Both actors actually look quite physically revulsed during their love scenes. Then, during a reuniting scene, later, they practically bite off each other’s lips. This is love? This is real? Where is any tenderness? No couple, of any persuasion, that I’ve ever met, not even when coming home from war, reunite so erotically in public. That said, neither actor emits chemistry with nor eros for the other. Would it have been too much to cast two gay leads, who could do a reasonable job of seeming to be sexually excited by each other? Instead, this film bares its dry and emotionally hermetic compass over and over, in that scene and many others.

  Decades go by, and these two men, liars both, marry, use, and abuse the women in their lives. Ennis is the worse of the two, for his wife Alma (Michelle Williams), actually seems to love him, while Jack’s wife, Lureen (Anne Hathaway), a former cowgirl, whom he lives with in Texas, we later find out, accepts the fact that he’s queer, and humps Ennis in Wyoming, and Mexican boys across the border. Yet, both are brought on to the film’s canvas immediately after the guys’ first tryst. In fact, we first see Williams’ character at her wedding to Ennis. Would not have the first half hour of scenery gazing been better spent developing these two female characters? Of course, but to Lee and the two screenwriters, the wives are mere plot points, not worth developing, especially since the leads are left in emotional utero even longer. Williams does well in her portrayal of the cuckolded bride, and Hathaway really projects her character’s aging well. The two male leads, however, look ridiculous in their poor makeup jobs. Aging, for them, consists of growing sideburns, it seems. There’s a scene of Ledger with his nineteen year old daughter that is ridiculous, because they look like he should be ramming her up the ass, unless one is to believe Ennis fathered her three months out of his own mama’s womb.

  The gay duo supplement their lonely lives by meeting every so often, sometimes years apart, up at fishing cabins, where they never fish. I mean, fishing poles and gay sex; could the symbolism be any more laughably strained? This whole scenario, by the way, is oddly reminiscent of the bland and conventional 1978 film Same Time, Next Year, with Ellen Burstyn and Alan Alda, about two lovers who tryst every year, and cheat on their spouses, in the same hotel suite where they first met. Eventually, Ennis divorces his wife, in 1975, and Jack goes ‘full on’ in his quest for ass, which eventually gets him fagbashed to death at the age of thirty-nine. Perhaps the best scene in the film is when Ennis calls Jack’s wife, after a postcard comes back marked DECEASED, and she casually tells of the bullshit tale of Jack’s ‘accidental’ death, and that she knows that Ennis was Jack’s ‘hump buddy’. Anne Hathaway is very good in this scene, and the whole film. In fact, she and Michelle Williams do far better acting, in their few scenes, than the two leads do. Gyllenhaal is ok as Jack, for his odd looks- sort of like a retarded, uglier Tobey Maguire, seem apt, but Heath Ledger totally butchers ‘cowboy’ lingo, constantly letting his Aussie accent seep through his near constant mumbling- too much spunk to chew on? I guess Marlboro Men are naturally incoherent- oh, wait….might that be a stereotype. Yes, bbut it’s stereotyping Right Wingers, so that’s ok. Marlboro Men must be serial mumblers, because in the last scene of the film, after Ennis has retrieved Jack’s shirt within a shirt from his parent’s home child’s bedroom closet (horrid symbolism from the short story that any screenwriter of ability would have trashed) he hangs it in, yes, his own closet, then mumbles something. Fade to black. Five times I rewound the DVD and replayed that scene….and I still have no idea what the hell Heath Ledger mumbles. Of course, why should I expect the last scene to be any different than any other in the film? Ledger spends the whole film talking as if he had a cock in his mouth, and Gyllenhaal walks around the whole film as if he has a cock up his ass. That must be PC’s blend of subtlety, no?

  The DVD comes with no commentary, and a few making of featurettes, which are nothing special, allowing the stars to crow about how ‘wonderful’ the film is, how ‘strong’ the writing is. Puh-lease! Proulx’s short story was atrocious, and this hugely puffed up film, screenplay by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, is similarly void in all measurable ways. Instead of fleshing out real characters in the extra time and scenes the film subjects us to, we get, instead, just posturing, and melodrama that would make most soap opera fans laugh- were the film not a ‘social statement’, and condemning it as art not seen as being ‘homophobic’. There was a time when Ang Lee actually made serious, and pretty good films, like Sense And Sensibility and The Ice Storm. Now, he only directs films with superficial characters. In Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and The Hulk he had excuses, since they were literal cartoons, but what’s his excuse for this dreck, save for cementing his place in history as directing the first Hollywood gay film? Unfortunately, the Hollywood aspects of this film dooms it far worse than the gay aspect.

  On a social level, I tire of films like this, or Crash, trying to erect critical shields around their horrid art by declaring that if one thinks the art in the film sucks, one is a racist or a gay hater. Crash indulges more racial stereotyping, and this film more gay stereotyping, than your average racist or homophobe can cram into their small minds, such as a gay cannot be normal in film- he or she has to be dying, murderous, depressed, deranged, victimized, or victimizer. And, ethically, the film does a lot of dancing about- not on- the ethics of homosexuality, but on adultery and lying. For example, if this film were about two men who cheated on their wives with other women, would the film have portrayed their encounters so favorably? I doubt it. But, adultery is okey-dokey if gay, and letting your ‘true’ self be revealed. So, it’s ok to be a liar and user if queer, but if you lie and use women in your straight adultery it’s not ok? Of course, exploring real emotion, say, in the way a John Cassavetes did, well, that’s the true taboo in dumbed down Hollywood. Not to mention that the main characters have many other flaws, as well.

  Yet, the film tries to portray the Randy Quaid character as a simplistic voyeuristic bigot who watches the boys in their nude sexual frolics from afar, with binoculars, while the fact of the matter is that the two lust-happy cowpokes are bad at their job, so distracted by ass that this results in Aguirre losing his cattle to predators. And what’s with his stemming the rose comment? Of course, not living up to employment obligations is ok if you’re getting homosexually laid. Now, think of the film making this same argument if the two boys were squiring female whores on the mountain when they should have been working. Personally, I don’t care of these dilemmas on an existential level, but this is a prime example of Left Wing Hollywood hypocrisy- to advocate deceit and irresponsibility if it’s for a ‘higher cause’ they support, but condemn those who disagree with that point of view as merely being recalcitrant haters.

  This film is not a love story for the ages, but a tale of simple sexual obsession. Yet, even that does not enliven it a bit. In the back of my mind I was thinking of Alfred Hitchcock’s far superior film of nearly sixty years ago, based on the Leopold and Loeb case, Rope. In every way those two gay protagonists, admittedly murderers, reeked chemistry and forbidden desire in all the ways this film’s leads do not. It made me think that the graphic first sexual encounter these boys have is there simply because there’s nothing else upon which to hang this movie’s threadbare plot, which is also a specious social thesis, not a work of art, much less a great one. For example, it adds an inane subplot not in the original story- Ennis’s dad showing him and his brother a dead queer guy when nine. All this is used for is to show why Ennis is in the closet, not to say anything profound. This film simply subordinates whatever good artistic impulses Lee may have had in favor of the Lowest Common Denominator import of the ‘message’. Were this a film whose leads were straight, the critics would have torn at it for being every bit as kitschy as the abominable Love Story was. But again, PC dictates that one must always value the social message in a work of art, above all else….unless, naturally, it disagrees with PC. Then, any message manifests the art as a work of ‘hate’.

  Having grown up in New York, I have had much experience with seeing literal sex in the streets- gay and straight, so nothing in this movie shocked me, which was, perhaps the only shock in the film. That is because this is an incredibly dull, trite, tendentious, and tedious film, whose two leads are deceitful and thoroughly despicable losers whom even the film knows are not worth the time in developing, especially when the ‘message’ is there to sell it. As proof of the ignoble nature of the leads, Ennis even mumbles to Jack, ‘Because of you, I’m nowhere,’ blaming everyone but himself for his own shallow and insidious misery. This sort of bad writing, and dubious moralizing, makes Brokeback Mountain every bit as bad a film as its music video-like Oscar-winning rival, Crash. And, before I forget, this film is hypocritical, too, in that most Hollywood of ways, because, for a supposed film about gays it’s interesting to note that we get no male frontal nudity, only tit shots of the leading ladies. Not that I’m complaining, but, hmmm, why do you think they done that? Perhaps, next year, the top two lauded films will actually be passable, not the utter schlock that this year’s crop reaped. See, they haven’t killed my dreams yet!

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