Even before they had seen the movie, exgay network Exodus and its prime benefactor Focus on the Family feared that Brokeback Mountain might prompt conservative Christians to rethink how they treat homosexual family members. And upon rethinking their own role in the homosexual problem, Christian movie viewers might realize that the culture-war tactics of Exodus and James Dobson are self-serving, sinful, counterproductive, and sometimes dishonest.
Whatever the intent of its makers, the movie is neither liberal nor revolutionary — unlike an Oliver Stone or Michael Moore flick, it does not beat the viewer over the head with some dumb Hollywood agenda. The movie does not glamorize sex: The main characters are not supermodels, there is no explicit sex, and the one implied sex scene looks rather painful. The movie does not prefer homosexual love over heterosexual marriage; it weighs the two and exposes the very hard struggles of both.
The film does contain heroes — but they are not the main characters.
Ennis and Jack are deeply and perhaps fatally flawed; the real heroes are the wives, children and a short-changed foreman played by Randy Quaid. In the showing that I recently attended in liberal Bethesda, Maryland, the audience was aghast at an onscreen wife’s plight when she discovers the main characters in a romantic embrace. Earlier, when the cowboys neglect their duties, sheep die and an annoyed foreman must take harsh action to protect his business. Here again, the audience must confront the irresponsibility of the main characters — and the rational reaction of their employer.
Many reviewers have said that Brokeback Mountain might teach mainstream America that two men can really love one another. But this is just one of many points made by the film, and in several respects the film paints an unflattering portrait — not of same-sex-attracted men in particular, but of men who recklessly pursue their passions — and men who conceal their feelings from people who have a compelling need to know. Decades ago, much of American society rejected the Marlboro Man myth as cancerous, racist, and inhuman — a twisted caricature of masculinity that damaged families when misguided men actually tried to emulate the myth. This movie reminds us of those days gone by — and points to the unhealthy myths that some social conservatives now wish to impose upon the real world.
While some liberals might blame societal hate for any of the movie protagonists’ dysfunctions, the film does not join in this buck-passing. The reactions of the cowboys’ peers to the relationship is often hostile, but sometimes that hostility is not only sensible, but perhaps even a bit too polite.
Yes, Jack and Ennis truly loved one another. But some things in life are just as important as love — maybe more important. One of Ennis’s central character flaws is social paralysis — an inability to choose in timely fashion among life’s competing opportunities, responsibilities, and consequences. Jack’s key flaw stands in contrast: A dangerous failure to weigh the consequence of choosing love over all else.
The movie does not glamorize these flaws — it lays them bare in the pain of the spouses, the losses suffered by the foreman, and the characters’ own fate.
When movies practice great restraint in their message, as Brokeback Mountain does, then audiences may disagree on what the “moral of the story” was. Here are the moral lessons that I drew from the film:
(I have made italicized changes in response to comments.)
1. If you are (predominantly) same-sex-attracted, don’t marry the opposite gender.
2. If you are married, don’t commit adultery.
3. It is not somehow worse for gay men to give up and divorce their spouses, than it is for philandering heterosexual spouses to give up and do likewise. But divorce should not be taken lightly — and this movie recognizes that divorce does not fix deep-rooted problems, whatever the orientation of the partners.
4. Don’t waste your life waiting to make key choices. If you do, others acting in their own interest will make your choices for you.
5. Don’t make major decisions carelessly.
6. Avoid keeping secrets. That secrecy harms others.
7. Avoid people and communities whose own hypocrisies might prompt them to harm you for being honest.