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Movie ReviewsBrokeback Mountain

Until now, I have done my best to avoid entering the debate about Ang Lee's newest film Brokeback Mountain.  However, the announcement of the Academy Awards nominees last Tuesday, including seven nominations for this film, has brought it to the front of my consciousness.  I decided it was time to brave the controversy and see for myself what all the fuss was about.

Based on the commentary I had heard, I expected Brokeback Mountain to be a film of exceptional artistic value shadowed by seriously troubling moral content.  It seemed to present the perfect opportunity to examine how aesthetics and ethics both play a part in determining the worth of any given film.  Unfortunately, Brokeback Mountain did not lend itself to this discussion as I had anticipated.

To be quite honest, I am still unsure exactly what everyone sees in this film.  Ang Lee is clearly a skilled director, and Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography portrays Canada's landscape brilliantly (although the story is set in Wyoming).  However, I am not convinced that the artistry of this film alone is enough to draw so much attention from the secular press.

Evidently, the film's popularity lies solely in its unashamed portrayal of a sexual relationship between two cowboys, which to so many is a victory worthy of a Best Picture nomination regardless of artistic achievement.  I am hesitant to assume that critics are praising Brokeback Mountain because they welcome its moral agenda, but I see nothing in it so extraordinary as to otherwise merit the acclaim it has received.

The story opens with Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) seeking employment herding sheep for a summer in Wyoming.  The two share few words as they begin working together, but one cold night finds them sharing a tent on an isolated mountain.  Amidst the confusion of drunkenness, lust and anger, their sexual relationship begins that night and motivates their actions throughout the remainder of the film.

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When their employment comes to an end, Ennis and Jack part, eventually marrying women and settling in Wyoming and Texas respectively.  Four years later, they reconnect and begin a secretive relationship that consists of several excursions per year to Brokeback Mountain disguised as fishing trips.  The film tracks this relationship over twenty years as it wreaks havoc in their lives and marriages.

The moral issues this film presents are so obvious and so widely discussed that I hardly need to mention them here.  I will say that the majority of the troubling content is thematic and not visual.  While I cannot recommend seeing this film, I must insist that anyone who intends to do so be warned there is one fairly graphic scene of homosexual relations and a few scenes of heterosexual sex, including partial female nudity.

What did strike me profoundly about Brokeback Mountain was the overwhelming emptiness that resulted from Ennis's and Jack's pursuit of carnal desire.  Certainly, the film's message is that this emptiness would vanish if society accepted their love so they could live together.  Approached from a Catholic perspective, however, it is seeking physical pleasure apart from fruitful, self-giving love that leaves them miserable and unfulfilled.  Ironically, Jack calls their relationship simply “an unsatisfying situation.”  The truth in this statement is that sensuality can never be satisfying on its own, and Brokeback Mountain is a painful portrait of the consequences of this hedonistic mentality. 

There are many positive things I could say about Brokeback Mountain: the score is beautifully simple, the cinematography echoes the story's tone impeccably, and Heath Ledger's performance is more subtle and complex than any I've seen in some time.  Despite these admirable elements, the film as a whole does not live up to its reputation.  For the purposes of this column, I'll continue to search for a more interesting film to contemplate the relationship between morality and aesthetics in the cinema.

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