“Where do they go? The people, when you change them?”
It’s difficult to put The Mountain from writer director Rick Alverson into a familiar category. Drama doesn’t seem to say quite enough. It borders at times on surrealism, but there is also a strong sense of reality as it looks back to a time. Its dark and brooding mood carries us into a world in which reality and the portrayal of reality seem to blend.
Andy (Tye Sheridan) is leading a life without goal or meaning. His world is as cold and flat as the ice rink where he runs the Zamboni. His father is even colder. His mother has been institutionalized for many years. When his father dies, Andy is approached by Dr. Wallace Fiennes (Jeff Goldblum), to accompany him on a trip across the country to take photographs. Dr. Fiennes is a lobotomist who goes from hospital to hospital to perform the increasingly controversial procedure. Little by little, Andy begins to identify with the patients. Is it an emotional connection, or is he beginning to recognize his own mental illness? Or perhaps it is his guilt in being involved in this procedure. When he connects with a young woman patient (Hannah Gross), his life becomes increasingly fragile.
Set in the 1950s, this film is actually the opposite of nostalgic. Whereas that time is often seen as a golden age in American culture (well, at least since American Graffiti and Happy Days), this film reminds us that it was a period with a very dark side. We are meant to be uncomfortable with the way people are treated in that time. We are also meant to be wary of those who, like Dr. Fiennes, claim to be experts and saviors, but who leave a trial of broken lives in their wake.
Visually, the film offers some interesting cinematography that aids in the storytelling, helping us to feel the very depression and neuroses that are central to the film. Sometimes that is fairly subtle. For example, scenes in which Andy and Dr. Fiennes are in a small room talking to each other face to face, but then the viewer notices as the camera goes back and forth, that there are no doors in the room. Is this reality or dream?
It could be that this film serves not just as a reminder of the flaws in our “good old days”, but also as a metaphor for understanding the world in which we find ourselves. In a “post-truth” society, in which news is called false when it doesn’t agree with one’s version of reality, the question of sanity may not be about individuals, but the culture as a whole. There are so many versions of reality competing to be accepted, that we might well think our society is living with schizophrenia. And there are those who would like nothing more than to pacify those who have differing realities. In that sense, The Mountain seeks to be a cautionary tale concerning where we are headed—or may already have arrived.
Photos courtesy of Kino Lorber