Film reviews

Lonesome cowboy blues

Brokeback Mountain, dir. Ang Lee.

One of the first things that struck me while watching Ang Lee’s latest film was a sense of being hemmed in, or trapped both visually and emotionally, that seemed far removed from the wide-open vistas one usually associates with a western. That is, until I realised that, for all its cowboys and mountain ranges and rodeos, the film is visually, thematically and narratively a full-blown melodrama, not a western. At its core, cinematic melodrama turns on the tension between desire and convention, between what we want, and what society says we should, or must, do. One of its hallmarks is often a sense of overwhelming claustrophobia, a reflection of the sense of being hemmed in, trapped, entombed in a life that has no space for paths other than the ones society decrees acceptable. Whether the issue at stake is class, race, or (in this case) sexuality, the tears melodrama evokes are tears of bitterness and grief at the ways in which the dead hand of ‘normality’ misshapes and distorts the life of the heart.

These are precisely the tears Lee is asking from you (and most probably will get) in return for his story of two cowboys (Ennis Del Mar, played by Heath Ledger, and Jack Twist, played by Jake Gyllenhaal—both excellent performances, in quite different ways) who fall deeply, physically, and inescapably in love while working together as young men on Brokeback Mountain, and then must struggle through marriages, children, and all the myriad requirements of a social normality, all the while desperately trying, and failing, to find a space for a relationship that has no place within any of that. One of the things that gives the film its richness, however, is that it does not set up a simplistic ‘society bad, freedom good’ dichotomy. As well as the prejudice, contempt and brutality that Ennis and Jack hide from, we also see the pain that the contradictions in their lives causes in the lives of those around them. This is especially true of Ennis’s wife, played beautifully by Michelle Williams, and Jack’s mother (Roberta Maxwell) who appears only at the very end of the film but offers a deeply moving portrayal of the torment caused by the combination of her love for Jack and the impossibility of saying out loud the truth she knows of who and what he is.

Ultimately, it is a film about silence, or rather being silenced, and the damage this silence does to all those who fail to hear or speak what both has to be, and can never be said. Ennis is so trapped by the impossibility of being who he is and not being who he is that his voice barely reaches past his lips; far from being stoic or laconic, his silence is a howl of pain that escapes only twice. It is a fine and beautiful film, often deeply moving, attentive to the unspoken tides that shape and misshape its characters’ lives, both measured and affecting. It is not, however, in any sense radical, or a ‘breakthrough’ film, as some have suggested (mainly with reference to its portrayal of two men in love with each other). Indeed, probably the saddest thing about this sad movie is that such reactions suggest that the social constraints that cause its characters to suffer so have not changed all that much at all.

Allan James Thomas

Just going through the motions

Jarhead, dir. Sam Mendes.

Jarhead is the latest movie from director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition), based on the acclaimed autobiographical book of the same name from former soldier Anthony Swofford. Those familiar with the lingo of the United States Marine Corps—many of us are, given the glut of American war films in your local video store—will recognise the term. The average trooper or grunt: the jarhead.

The heads of men in the Marines look like jars, thanks to their distinctive haircuts and the fact that the concept of jarhead (as explained in one of the many dry voice-overs) is analogous to the ideal of the common soldier—an empty vessel, to be trained in combat and aggression, conditioned through repetitive instruction into repressing individual thought (this rarely seems to work) and submission to their superior officers.

Anthony ‘Swoff’ Swofford (played by Jake Gyllenhaal, Brokeback Mountain, Donnie Darko) is one such jarhead—a fresh recruit into the gung-ho world of the US Marine Corps. His tale is the story of the average soldier on the modern battlefield. He joins an elite squad of snipers and spotters whose main role is ‘target acquisition’—to wit, the marking out of targets for jets to drop bombs on to.

Just before the first Gulf War, Swofford is stationed with his unit in Saudi Arabia, where camp life is hard and the personalities of his unit and the character of his staff sergeant (a convincing performance from Jamie Foxx) come into play. The boredom and frustration of waiting to be thrown into war is portrayed well, and the psychological deterioration of a group of people waiting to die or kill becomes apparent—though one is drawn to believe that what the jarheads really want is respect, purpose, identity, and a decent salary.
Sniper Swofford has a classic relationship with the Marines: he hates the bureaucracy, despises the food and conditions, but comes to lust for conflict and kills. Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance is excellent—his relationship with his spotter Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) has some poignant moments.

When they finally get moving to Kuwait, to fight Iraq’s ‘hardcore’ Republican Guard, the men are hungry for action. What they find is more tedium, with the monotony of marching and making camp occasionally disturbed by the sound of distant gunfire or gruesome scenes on the road. The story arc is punctuated by the surreal, dream-like experiences of Swofford, which also mark significant moments in his mental disintegration.

This is a war film where the soldiers never get to battle. They go through the motions, ducking for cover and sneaking up on enemies, but it’s the bombs dropped from overhead that actually do the damage. The real conflict in Jarhead is the mêlée in the minds of each soldier, as they struggle to stay alive and balance their psychological stability. Jarhead is a film of much ambiguity, and offers some food for thought.

Gil Maclean

 

Violence and retaliation

Munich, dir. Steven Spielberg.

Munich is a serious and flawed epic, the latest release from director Steven Spielberg. Drawing on the considerable talents of Tony Kushner and Eric Roth (and the book Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team, by George Jonas), Munich is about the Israeli retaliation for the brutal murders of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics by Black September, a Palestinian terrorist/paramilitary group.

Australian star Eric Bana (best known for his roles in Troy, Black Hawk Down and Chopper) plays Avner, assigned to lead a team of Mossad assassins, with the mission of eliminating the remaining members of Black September. His handler, Ephraim, is played in a convincing and amusing style by Geoffrey Rush, and there are some excellent moments between the two. Bana has done incredibly well with this difficult role—his character is patriotic and determined, and the gradual psychological deterioration of Avner feels genuine, to a point.

On one hand, Munich seems to be making a case for murder as an acceptable tool so long as it serves political expediency, and this point is written down on a piece of paper, tied to a brick, and thrown through the audience’s front window. In contrast, however, the toll of living the covert, dangerous and lonely life of the assassin has Avner becoming increasingly paranoid and unable to function normally, and this aspect of the film borders on being just another overstated brick through the window—and just when you think the director might’ve known that the material was getting out of hand, it’s overdone some more.

There is much that is good in Munich—the dialogue is of a high standard, as are the production values. Visually the film is almost flawless, and the tragedy of the Munich Massacre—for both sides of the conflict, and all who suffer from its violence—has now been given the big-budget Spielberg treatment, which could very well leave a Munich audience feeling that the movie needed a good script edit before being released.

Gil Maclean

 

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