I looked forward to seeing The Ledge. The director kept promoting it as the atheist “Brokeback Mountain.” I finally managed to watch the thing (thank goodness I didn’t pay for it) and was quite disappointed. Not only was the acting horrendous (with the possible exception of Patrick Wilson), the plot was shallow, lame, insensitive, and dull.
The main character, an atheist (played by Charlie Hunnam), falls for the wife (Liv Tyler) of religious wingnut (Patrick Wilson) and persuades her to sleep with him. Perhaps we are supposed to be impressed by the fact that the main character is an out atheist yet not entirely immoral (though most people, atheists included, do not sanction extramarital affairs). Maybe we are to be awed by the clear role reversal, as the religious nut is the clear villain and the godless heathen is the hero. Either way, I was unimpressed.
The part that I liked the least was its strong focus on death. There are a lot of moments in the movie where characters reflect on the passing of a loved one. The hero lost his only daughter in a tragic accident. The religious freak spoke to parents right after the loss of their child. If the film’s obsession with death weren’t enough, it then goes on to relay extremely childish, shallow conceptions of death and the afterlife. The movie implies atheists cannot deal with death; only theists can because of their belief in the afterlife. Theists can hardily survive the passing of a loved one; atheists have no way of coping with the loss. How is that a pro-atheist message?
I’ve been fortunate to have not yet lost a really close relative. I can’t imagine the loss of a loved one is simple to overcome, for theists or non-theists. I can allow that belief in an afterlife can provide some comfort, but just a little. To propose that belief in an afterlife greatly lessens the pain is to cheapen the human grieving experience and to minimize a very real sorrow. I know my mother was devastated when she lost her father seventeen years ago. Whether or not she believes in an afterlife, I don’t suppose there is any easy way to assuage the pain. While belief in an afterlife may have some benefit, to promote it as the answer to grieving strikes me as profoundly juvenile and simplistic. This is aside from other obvious problems, such as the lack of evidence for life after death, and our subsequent uncertainty that we do, in fact, survive our demise. In reality, belief in the afterlife is an overrated way of coping with death that is useless to atheists and barely useful to theists. In the Jewish tradition, the way the loss of a loved one is dealt with is by “sitting shiva,” or receiving a week of support from family and friends. You’d think the afterlife would play more of a role, wouldn’t you? I’ve been to many shiva houses, unfortunately. I’ve never even once heard a whisper about the afterlife while there. And if the afterlife is such a big deal, why is it barely mentioned in the Old Testament?
There have been other atheist and atheist-friendly movies each more well-deserving of the title “Atheist Brokeback Mountain.” Examples include Religulous, Whatever Works, Chocolat, and The Invention of Lying. These portray atheists in a favourable light and don’t systematically butcher major concepts and questions. If you’re looking for a movie that deals with death and loss, I can’t think of a better example than Hereafter. Although not at all an atheist movie, it deals with the topic with great tact and sensitivity, with little to no theism invoked. The Ledge, in contrast, manages to insult the intelligence and emotions of both theists and atheists alike.