Review: Rick Alverson’s ‘The Mountain’ Proves A Challenging, But Rewarding Watch
“Where do they go . . . after you change them?”
Somewhere in an art house theater this weekend, a film called The Mountain will be projected on the silver screen. It will lure audiences in with the names of Tye Sheridan and Jeff Goldblum, but once the film begins, audiences will become fully aware of the cinematic challenge presented by director Rick Alverson’s latest film.
Set in the 1950s, The Mountain follows Andy (Sheridan) and Dr. Wallace Fiennes (Goldblum) as they travel between mental wards conducting new, and controversial, lobotomy procedures. While Fiennes conducts the procedures, Andy takes photos, documenting the effects laid upon the patients and triggering a subsequent realization of the harm it is producing.
After the conclusion, I admittedly had a difficult time parsing meaning from the film. There is an inherent ambiguity to the film that will alienate most audience goers —and it truly earns the label of art cinema— but I would be lying if I didn’t find it utterly entrancing and hypnotic. There are moments in the film that have you agape as you wonder why this particular scene holds relevance while others lock you in, holding your attention as you speculate on loaded images.
Fixated but unsure, I felt the need to Google an interview and find out what the intent was behind such an ambiguous film. Turns out the film was about “the romanization of white male privilege era of the 1950s” and the harmful impacts of nostalgia for that period, a message I hadn’t tracked on first viewing, but one that registers more and more as I think about it. This could very well be a case of ‘trust the story, not the story teller’ in which the film’s intentions are inadvertently lost on the audience, and something entirely different emerges.
What connected in my experience was the loss of one self. The inhumane practice of lobotomy essentially steals oneself of being, of existing consciously. For Andy, his journey with Dr. Fiennes brings him further away from humanity as he sees ego destroy the lives of the mentally ill. Again, it’s not the easiest film to consume, so I may very well be off base, but that challenge is what makes it so freeing. While not inherently explicit in meaning, it’s vague and open, making it a task to unpack on your own and explore your own reading.
Beyond the opaque meaning, the film’s aesthetic pleasantries are undeniable. There isn’t an ill-composed shot in the entire film as cinematographer Lorenzo Hagerman combs over inch of the frame with fine precision. Compositions are so neat and orderly that you really want to just hold on them as long as you can. The effect of it all creates some particularly powerful images, and like a good photograph, they tend to linger, staying long after you’ve seen them — even if seen only for a brief moment. The film’s 1.37:1 Academy ratio in tandem with it’s brown and beige sepia tones date the film to match the period, giving the film’s look a timely quality beyond simply implementing it for style. All in all, if there’s anything certain about The Mountain, it’s how good it looks, and those looks amass to the provocative nature of the film.
The last little bit I want to touch on is Jeff Goldblum and Tye Sheridan, of which I think give standout performances. Not because of their range, but because of the differences seen between their usual roles. The aforementioned interview brings it up, but Goldblum really does play a role unlike what we know him for. Where something like Thor: Ragnarok plays into his typecast, here he is a doctor with an off-beat intelligence, a subtle superiority that radiates without turning into comedy. Sheridan is pretty much voiceless in the entire film — making me double check I wasn’t watching a Nicolas Winding Refn film — and works more with his eyes than what he says, something that alines with his role as photographer. Both work to supplant current image and I tip my hat to them for their performances.
The Mountain is a difficult watch. I can’t pontificate and claim to know the meaning behind everything in the film, but I can assuredly say it was an experience. Much like that of Long Day’s Journey Into Night earlier this year, sometimes there’s satisfaction in having things left unknown. The taxing nature of the film is accredited to Alverson’s vision, but whether that vision is far-fetched or cinematically alluring will be left to you. All I know is I’ve thought about it quite a bit since its conclusion.
The Mountain plays at North West Film Forum from August 30th to September 5th.
Prior to writing my review, I found Letterboxd’s interview with Rick Alverson tremendously fascinating. It not only has some fun anecdotes about the film, but it also helped me work through my thoughts on this challenging film.
To the point of Jeff Goldblum playing a role outside of his wheel house, here is a recent interview where he showcases all his lovable eccentric behaviors, something totally polar to his role in this film.