Cast: Tye Sheridan, Jeff Goldblum, Udo Kier, Denis Lavant, Hannah Gross
Director: Rick Alverson
Running time: 1 hour 48 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
The films of Rick Alverson have always prided themselves on a kind of erasure. The Comedy and Entertainment were both confrontational works which purposefully alienated audiences because character depth, narrative, and clarity were left out completely. Many filmmakers use ambiguity in order to conjure a mood which ties into an overall thematic construct, but Alverson isn’t interested in that. His films are boldly anti-narrative and anti-clarity; meaning that for him, standard narrative structure is a lie created by a certain system of thought. His most ambitious project yet, The Mountain, doubles down on this concept to hypnotic effect. It’s a film likely to frustrate and baffle many, but here again, Alverson is testing the complacency of how we process stories.
The film takes place in 1950s Upstate New York and follows Andy (Tye Sheridan), an introverted loner who lives in the shadow of his strict figure skater instructor father (Udo Kier) while haunted by the loss of his mother to an institution. Early on, Alverson submerges us into Andy’s headspace; holding on wide shots where he stands placidly in a hallway or cleans an ice rink. Once Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Wally Fiennes comes along looking for a portrait photographer for his lobotomy patients, he zeroes in on Andy as the ideal candidate. What initially follows is a strange student-mentor road movie where Andy and Dr. Fiennes travel to a series of asylums, and we expect (as per narratives of this kind) that this relationship will either grow deeper or break apart. Instead, Alverson’s film becomes more obtuse as it goes along, offering little in the way of satisfying character arcs or closure. However, the vision of 1950s America as a landscape where quiet desperation gradually gives way to despair is captured brilliantly.
Working with cinematographer Lorenzo Hagerman, Alverson shoots everything like a rigid painting, with characters artfully posed within the frame. When the camera does move, it’s usually a slow dolly pushing in on objects or people like a creeping fog. Robert Donne’s eerie score guides the turgid pacing, reinforcing this idea of postwar America as a breeding ground for psychological anguish. The performances, too, are of a piece with Alverson’s vision. Sheridan slumps his shoulders and holds his head down, often refusing to make eye contact with others, and despite minimal dialogue, he creates a deeply sympathetic character. Meanwhile, Goldblum strips away his innate kookiness as a man obsessed with his work but also tortured by it, as we only get his charisma in fits and starts. There’s a disorienting menace to Goldblum’s work here which he rarely gets a chance to exercise, and as the film moves away from his relationship with Andy into a subplot involving weirdo Frenchman Jack (Denis Lavant), we start to see the cracks in Dr. Fiennes’s calm facade.
The material involving Lavant’s unhinged father and his institutionalized daughter, Susan (Hannah Gross) takes The Mountain into uncharted territory, where many will claim Alverson loses the thread. However, the scenes between Gross and Sheridan are heartbreaking in how they tap into the idea of two damaged souls seeking solace. This subtle emotionality is counterbalanced by the high wire lunacy of Lavant, who feels like he’s beamed in from another planet, but this juxtaposition is purposeful. Jack is no more sane than those being prodded in Dr. Fiennes’s invasive procedures, and by extension, Andy’s grip on reality is slipping. The film’s third act reaches towards madness and despair, but there’s also something transcendently beautiful about the final frames.
The Mountain doesn’t end with an overriding message regarding mental illness or unhealthy relationships, but it does show us how one’s sense of reality can be skewed. As Andy snaps photos of the institution patients deemed “unwell”, there’s a genuine statement about representational art going on here. Alverson’s removed aesthetic is inviting us into this conversation too, since we are always looking to connect emotionally or intellectually to a work of art. This is best summed up by a drunken Jack monologue where he tells Andy, You look confused. What confuses you? Art? Art is a thought for which there is no other form in the whole wide world. For Alverson, narrative and closure are smoke screens. It is not the job of art to tell a coherent story where connections are explicitly understood and we all walk away feeling like we got the entire picture. By contrast, art opens a window for us to think, argue, and dissect, and The Mountain spreads its arms to such connections and then willingly pushes us off the cliff.