Steven Greydanus Finds a Fundamental Flaw in "Brokeback Mountain"

Many Christian filmgoers will condemn Brokeback Mountain because they will assume that it is evil due to its subject matter. That’s the worst kind of reaction to it. It leads us to become reactionary and judgmental, and it prevents us from learning to be patient, to look closely, to discern.

What I like about Steven D. Greydanus’s review at Decent Films is that, even though he gives Brokeback Mountain a failing grade, at least he did the work of thinking through it and seeing it for what it is, acknowledging what is well done and what is faulty, rather than merely judging it and ignoring it.

This is a powerfully written review, and I recommend you read it.

I also recommend that the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops read it and compare it to their own official review. Who’s really doing the necessary work of discernment and service here?

Here’s a clip:

Brokeback Mountain is a work of art, more concerned with telling a story about characters than with making sure that the viewer feels a certain way about a moral issue.

That’s not to say that Brokeback Mountain doesn’t have a point of view. It does have a point of view — a profoundly problematic one, one that makes it potentially far more insidious than mere propaganda. All the same, it doesn’t commit the artistic fraud of shaping every single element in its story to move the viewer’s sympathies in one and only one direction. That sort of one-sidedness is increasingly the single thing that I find most quickly sabotages a film’s persuasiveness; nothing else so glaringly announces that the filmmaker himself hasn’t really put his own point of view to the test, and doesn’t trust the audience to see things his way unless he stacks the deck in his own favor.

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  • Jonathan

    The first pic of Colin Farrell’s John Smith looks like a romance novel cover…:)

  • Joel Buursma

    I have been saying for months now that the movie needs to be separated from its marketing, and I think Brokeback Mountain is a fair bit more complicated than that.

    Did I hear correctly when Ang Lee won his Oscar for Best Director: it sounded like he said the movie was about love. And he’s the director, not a marketer (although this is the Oscars, where Hollywood politics loom). Is there any definition of “love” that can be consistent Lee’s statement? Isn’t this statement just political spin that actually dishonors what complexity there was in the movie?

  • Peter T Chattaway

    But they paint this as a sad thing, that Jack can’t get his fix on a regular basis . . .

    Is it sad that he can’t get his fix, or is it sad that he needs a fix?

    . . . and that Ennis is so trapped (in something he willingly chose, and continued with after meeting Jack.)

    I think Ennis is trapped in a heck of a lot more than his sexual relationship (which Jack sprung on him when he was drunk; any “choosing” Ennis did came later).

    For all of the subtle performances and attention to detail, this disproportionality betrays the film as having its heart in the wrong place.

    I disagree. Is A Clockwork Orange “disproportionate”? There is something to be said for telling stories from an unabashedly subjective point of view, while allowing us to see the larger world around these characters that they themselves might miss.

    To insist on perfect balance all the time is absurd, and leads to movies like, well, Crash, where everyone is a stereotype ready to be pancake-flipped, and where (as Sundered put it) everyone is equally repulsive and exemplary, and where virtually no one feels like a real person.

  • Jeffrey Overstreet

    I agree that it fleshes out its characters better than Crash. But it’s a matter of proportion: By painting the days on BB Mountain as idyllic, against such a beautiful backdrop… and by giving the romantic, melancholy music to the guys… and by giving Ennis & Alma only a few token moments of happiness and then a whole lot of dysfunction… it stacks the deck so that our sympathies go to the guys who had the ill-advised, hasty fling instead of the people who strove to build a family.

    And, the film’s later chapters ask us to focus on the suffering of the guys who just can’t get together and make it work. Sure, we see Alma’s heart broken, but as soon as she’s gone, she’s GONE, and we linger on the ongoing distress of the guys who just can’t get over their desire to connect sexually.

    I’ve had a lot of people tell me that their relationship is not just about sex. But why, then, does Jack keep insisting that he wants more of what he “only gets” a few times a year, and sometimes with prostitutes. He’s talking about satisfying his sex drive, not friendship or love or serving the man he loves. He doesn’t talk about wanting to dedicate himself to Ennis… he talks about what he’s not GETTING. If I felt that the filmmakers were aware of the problem with this, I’d give the film a lot more credit. But they paint this as a sad thing, that Jack can’t get his fix on a regular basis, and that Ennis is so trapped (in something he willingly chose, and continued with after meeting Jack.)

    For all of the subtle performances and attention to detail, this disproportionality betrays the film as having its heart in the wrong place.

  • Peter T Chattaway

    But I’m glad it beat “Brokeback” because it is, at least, a thinking person’s film… something that steers us toward care for our neighbors rather than coaxing us to hold up our personal desires and appetites as the highest good.

    Um, but Jeff, I don’t believe that Brokeback Mountain DOES “coax us to hold up our personal desires and appetites as the highest good.” I have been saying for months now that the movie needs to be separated from its marketing, and I think Brokeback Mountain is a fair bit more complicated than that. Indeed, it is precisely the sort of film that I complained Crash WASN’T, because where Crash churned up a bunch of stereotypes and then flipped them like pancakes, Brokeback Mountain took the time to create real, multi-faceted characters whose actions are open to a wide range of interpretations.

    The Academy nom’s Goblet of Fire (with FX by Lucas’ ILM) but not SW3? Hun? Odd.

    No, the Academy failed to nominate BOTH films — and the effects in BOTH films were WAY better than the effects in Narnia.

  • Gene Branaman

    BTW . . . why wasn’t Star Wars 3 not nom’d for SPFX? Do I recall correctly that only 3 films were? So why was Lucas snubbed? The Academy nom’s Goblet of Fire (with FX by Lucas’ ILM) but not SW3? Hun? Odd.

    Seems sorta slap-in-the-face purposeful to me.

  • Jeffrey Overstreet

    I stand by my 2 1/2 (out of four) star review of “Crash.”

    But I’m glad it beat “Brokeback” because it is, at least, a thinking person’s film… something that steers us toward care for our neighbors rather than coaxing us to hold up our personal desires and appetites as the highest good.

    Besides, the best films of the year weren’t even nominated, so there wasn’t a chance of a truly deserving film to take away the honors. Heck, of the nominated films, Munich was the only one I included in my Top 20 of the year.

  • Gene Branaman

    “The film is not about racism in L.A. It’s about the prejudices of the audience.”

    See, & I find that heavy-handed. And it’s nothing new, really. The original staging of Cabaret on B’way included giant mirrors that, at the show’s end, turned to reflect the audience back to themselves, bringing home one of the themes of the show (a riff on *all that’s necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing*) & strongly intimating that it’s still happening today. That was subtle & understated. Some folks didn’t get it. Is Crash that subtle? Heck, Gentleman’s Agreement (with Greg Peck) is far more subtle than Crash & makes the same basic point about folks! If you’ve not seen it, check it out.

    To each, their own. I’m just glad BM didn’t win. I’m sure there are some very unhappy BM supporters this morning. And that has me smiling in my Golden Monkey tea!

  • Thom

    I get the impression that he “loved” Crash because it beat Brokeback. :)

  • Christian

    I just hopped over to Peter’s blog, where you called “Crash” “an awful, overbearing, entirely frustrating film.” So your comment here that you “LOVE ‘Crash’” is sarcasm?

  • Peter T Chattaway

    A lot of people who don’t like it are missing the whole point of the film. The film is not about racism in L.A. It’s about the prejudices of the audience.

    Um, actually, that’s EXACTLY why I don’t like the film. It was easily the worst of this year’s Best Picture nominees.

  • Matt

    Too bad that Junebug was so overlooked.

    As for the rap song winning, yes I’m fine with rap being acknowledged by the academy. I am not fine with 3 6 Mafia winning. I’ve been a fan of hip hop for over a decade, and I’ve yet to run across an outfit with a greater proclivity for sexism. This is the same group that sang “Slob on My Knob.” Seriously. They’re short a member right now because Project Pat is in prison. This isn’t Outkast or Mos Def or Common or Kanye. This is the epitome of vulgar, offensive lyrical pornography. It should not be honored.

    I am not asking that hip hop be clean, but 3 6 is over the line and the irony that an academy full of people devoted to equality and tolerance would nominate this…it’s too rich.

  • Greg Marquez

    I was kind of expecting Crash to win.

    A lot of people who don’t like it are missing the whole point of the film. The film is not about racism in L.A. It’s about the prejudices of the audience. The audience expects certain things to happen because of who certain characters are but the characters don’t live up to our prejudices. We expect the Chinese man to be a good hard working fellow, he turns out to be a slave trader. We expect Matt Dillon to be a bad guy but he turns out to be a hero. We expect Dillons partner the good “liberal” guy to be a good guy he ends up killing a man and then covering it up. We expect the mexican American locksmith to be some kind of gang banger thug but he turns out to be kind and gentle. (He’s the obvious Christian in the movie the guy who’s been involved in some kind of Church program and it has completely changed his life. Very common character among real life Mexican Americans in Southern California.) The black social worker who can with the stroke of a pen eliminate the awful pain of an old man, doesn’t do so. She ends up looking worse than Matt Dillon.
    Enough said. I’m happy.

    My best picture was Batman Begins but hey I loved the original Batman movie when I saw it as a kid at the Crest theater in El Centro.

  • LN

    The Academy has been open to rap before the Pimp song – don’t forget “Lose Yourself” which, in my opinion is a brilliant song, and won for 8 Mile a few years ago.

  • Ben

    I enjoyed the fake campaign ads for the Best Actress nominees.

  • LN

    One moment (the only one I happened to catch all evening) you should fast-forward to see, for sure: Lilly Tomlin and Meryl Streep doing the intro to Robert Altman’s honorary award. BRILLIANT!!


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