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THE MOUNTAIN (2019) review

October 1, 2019

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written by: Rick Alverson, Dustin Guy Defa, Colm O’Leary
produced by: Allison Rose Carter, Eddy Moretti, Sara Murphy, Ryan Zacarias
directed by: Rick Alverson
rated: unrated (content equivalent of an R-rating)
runtime: 106 min.
U.S. release date: July 26, 2019 & September 27, 2019 thru October 2, 2019 (Gene Siskel Film Center) 

 

“Is that what you did to my mother?”

 

Over the course of a half dozen films, Rick Alverson has established himself as a filmmaker interested in grown men in various states of suspended adolescence. Whether they use that to hurt or help those around them varies depending upon the film, but he’s the sort of guy targeting a certain kind of audience with little to no interest in converting skeptics.

His latest effort “The Mountain” has been described by some as the director’s most accessible work to date, but I don’t find it as welcoming to non-acolytes as others. It concerns a closed off young man named Andy (Tye Sheridan) sometime in the 1950s who, in short order, loses both his mother and father—a sadly underutilized Udo Kier. With few other options, he decides to take a job accompanying Dr. Wally Fiennes (Jeff Goldblum) around the country to document the process by which he lobotomizes patients.

 

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Andy’s job involves taking pictures of Wally’s patients both before and after they are lobotomized. As someone who has experienced little to no human interaction, Andy begins to sympathize with these poor people who have had the literal light removed from their eyes. This runs counter to Wally’s all-business work ethic and their conflicting personalities come to a head at the home of Jack (the always wonderfully eccentric Denis Lavant), who wants his rebellious daughter Susan (Hannah Gross) to undergo one of Wally’s patented lobotomies.

The film’s look is almost clinical, as is the distance it maintains from its characters. Alverson and his co-writers Dustin Guy Defa and Colm O’Leary have made Andy so detached from everyone around him that it’s hard to invest in him in any meaningful way. Just because Tye Sheridan’s got one of the best pouts in the business doesn’t mean I’m automatically on his side. The audience needs to be invested in his journey, particularly as things begin to spiral out of control in his life, and I don’t feel they laid any of that crucial groundwork in the script.

As is all the rage right now in independent cinema, the film is shot in the academy ratio (1.37:1, like an old television set). While likely chosen to represent the closed off world of the protagonist, the academy ratio allows for Goldblum and Sheridan, who seems roughly a foot shorter than Goldblum, to stand near one another in the frame and have it look natural. In other words, it works better for practical reasons than it does artistic ones.

 

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In an era when most filmmakers seem to want to capitalize on Jeff Goldblum’s wonderful sense of self-awareness, Alverson dials him way back. Way, way back. So far back, I began to question why he cast the man in the first place. Goldblum is characteristically restrained here to the point where it’s almost a distraction. I don’t want to damn him with feint praise or anything, but Goldblum is at his best when he’s given a little—or a lot—of wiggle room as an actor and here he feels as boxed in as the film itself. It’s not that Goldblum isn’t magnetic when he’s playing a more restrained character, it’s that you can feel him pulling back, almost worried to not slip into any of his -isms, so to speak.

There is most definitely an audience for Rick Alverson’s “The Mountain,” I just worry that it’s the exact same audience there was for “Entertainment” and “The Comedy” and that it’s never going to grow beyond that. Some filmmakers likely don’t want to expand beyond the core audience that hews closest to their sensibilities, and I understand the impulse to create art that speaks to you as an artist without worrying about the audience at all.

I think I’m just left feeling hollow at the end of “The Mountain” and it’s not a feeling I can imagine many people rushing to experience for themselves. Let those who enjoy this glean from it whatever they may like. I just can’t bring myself to be among them.

 

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RATING: **

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