The Mountain (2019)
Director: Rick Alverson
Screenwriters: Rick Alverson, Dustin Guy Defa, Colm O’Leary
Starring: Tye Sheridan, Denis Lavant, Hannah Gross, Udo Kier, Jeff Goldblum
A skater slowly spins, her skates making that satisfying crunching sound as Tye Sheridan talks. This is the first moment of The Mountain, which establishes the emotional core of the film: Sheridan’s character, Andy, is dreaming about his mom whom he is forbidden to visit. His attachment to and longing for his mother propels the film forward, and informs Andy’s views on the mentally ill presented to us throughout the film.
The Mountain feels like watching a dream. Characters will wander, shout for each other and appear back together in the next scene, sometimes with no explanation. It contrasts the scientific and the mystic, and asks us about the ethics behind, and methods used, to diagnose and treat the mentally ill. Set in the 1960’s, the story follows Andy as he travels with Wally (Goldblum), a neurosurgeon and advocate for lobotomies as the best option for curing patients in asylums.
Visual storytelling is abundant in The Mountain. Space, depth, and frames-within-frames are used brilliantly alongside blocking to move characters on and off screen, to transition the narrative focus within any given sequence. It contains very little exposition and dialogue, but what we do get is effective at getting across what is necessary.
All of the performances are excellent, but Sheridan stood out the most. He is great at physically expressing emotion and character; there is no shortage of moments where he is seen but not heard, and each of them are captivating.
Director Rick Alverson likes mystery, and that might be the best word to describe this film. There are parallels said and shown throughout the film that may have no other meaning than the thematic/visual parallel or contrast itself. The inspiration for the film was how we as humans strive for perfection, and what things we possess that hold us back from that. Alverson believes we don’t let people be messy, and he shows value in the messier aspects of humanity on screen. The most entertaining moments are those involving drunk characters acting outside of our idea of normal, such as a series of rants towards the end of the film.
The Mountain isn’t universally loved, and it’s easy to see why. This film is not for everyone, and its pacing and lack of dialogue make it different from that which the average audience member watches; it’s a work that begs to be thought about and engaged with to maximize appreciation. Maybe it would be more popular if it was more clear, and it could be described as “pretentious” or “obfuscatory”, but if those descriptors don’t bother you, The Mountain is a fascinating work to experience.