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Sex, Love, Revenge ... and Atheism? Finally, a Big New Film That Shows Non-Belief in a Positive Light

"The Ledge" is smart, riveting, complex, emotionally engaging, visually gorgeous... and best of all, almost entirely unpredictable.

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There are places, I'll admit, where the dialogue gets a little... not false, exactly, but stilted. In particular, the conversations about religion often play like a bit like a comment thread in an atheist blog. An exchange of abstract ideas, rather than a personal conversation. But on the occasions when it does that, it pulls back into the human realm very quickly. And even though these debates are so absurdly familiar to me I could probably recite them in my sleep -- "The problem of suffering! The argument from locality! The utility defense!" -- I have to acknowledge that this probably won't be true for much of the audience. If you don't spend the bulk of your professional life hanging around the atheist blogosphere, the ideas and arguments in "The Ledge" about religion and atheism may be very new indeed. Unsettling. Emotionally intense. Possibly even mind-blowing.

The producers of "The Ledge" are pitching it as atheism's "Brokeback Mountain." And while I think that's something of an exaggeration, I don't think it's much of one. "The Ledge" is an intensely personal film that explores broad social questions on a private, human scale. It has an unapologetic viewpoint on the issues in question, without shying away from the complexities and sorrows and thorny, unanswerable questions they raise. It makes the marginalized character likeable and heroic, and at the same time lets him be flawed and troubled and often kind of a jerk. The parallels are hard to ignore.

I'm not quite ready to call this the atheist "Brokeback Mountain," though. It's an excellent movie, and it's an entirely unique movie; but it's not the nearly flawless work of genius that "Brokeback Mountain" was. The flaws I've already mentioned aren't the only ones. The movie is more than willing to let Gavin be troubled and morally imperfect -- but when it comes to the fact that Shana is not just his married neighbor but his employee, and that seducing her is sexual harassment, it shrugs and looks the other way. On a related note: I'm really, really, irritated that, in 2011, thoughtful, independent, culturally sensitive filmmakers are still making films that fail the Bechdel Test. (A failure that's even more troubling here, given the main female character's passivity, and her role primarily as the pawn in the two men's game.) And the tragedies in the main characters' pasts seem more than a little forced, a needlessly melodramatic way of gaining the audience's sympathy. (The sad sex work history particularly got up my nose. Can we please knock it off with that particular stereotype, folks?)

So no. I don't know if "The Ledge" is atheism's "Brokeback Mountain." But you know what? I don't know if atheism needs a "Brokeback Mountain." Atheism hasn't yet had a "Children's Hour," or a "Cabaret," or a "Philadelphia." Hell, atheism hasn't even had a "Hairspray." I can certainly think of atheist characters in mainstream American films -- mostly amoral, cynical, depressed, emotionally clueless, emotionally distant, or a combination of the above. But I can think of damn few atheist film characters who were likeable, sympathetic, and even heroic. And I can't think of a single mainstream film that was not only about an atheist, but that was about atheism. I can't think of a single mainstream film before this one that was a serious attempt to convey the reality of atheists' experience.

"The Ledge" isn't atheism's "Brokeback Mountain." "Brokeback Mountain" was the result of decades of activism and consciousness- raising -- about LGBT people in general, and about media depictions of LGBT people in particular. "The Ledge" isn't that. It isn't the culmination of a decades-long cinematic conversation about atheism.

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