The 1950s were not everything film makes them out to be. There were grave mental health problems then and we utilized barbaric solutions to deal with the problem of mental health. The brain is creating too much noise and so the problem parts should be removed. We are so used to maintaining idealistic standards – a coming of age story in the 50s would look one way – that anything else would come as a shock. Alverson only colors outside the lines. With The Mountain, he wants to tell a difficult story. It does not give in to any trope, that is not an artistic one, for the sake of satisfying the viewer. In fact, The Mountain feels like being bludgeoned with art. It’s a challenge about grief and lobotomy. It dares the unaware critic to say, this film lobotomizes the audience, dares us to be bored, but we really should not be, when someone is making some really interesting art.
This is particularly on-brand for director Rick Alverson who made Entertainment (2015), which is anything but entertainment, and the startlingly irreverent anti-comedy The Comedy (2012). He creates beautiful little slices of disconnected humanity that do not need us to understand what they mean. The Mountain, at least, features a Mountain, which the film does not get to, but it leaves us at the foothills, hopefully ascending toward meaning and purpose.
The best films have something to say about what you bring to them. All of Alverson’s work exists in this territory. They are meditations of self, the nature of the creator and audience, whether we glean any useful or abundant information is really secondary to having had the interaction at all. They are anti-commercial tests of the unknown. That most frightening kind of art for the general population, threatening not just absence of meaning, but that we might watch these moving images for a couple hours, and not have a way of organizing our thoughts about them. They certainly will not be handed out to us.
That it’s strikingly beautiful is a saving grace. You can watch it for aesthetic’s sake. It would be a very good movie taken that way. The lighting is sickly gray, framing Tye Sheridan as a ghastly apparition, a husk of a human really carved out by life. His parents have died and he’s left in bored stewardship of an ice rink, a Zamboni driver without any ice left to smooth over. He’s taken under the wing of a doctor who popularized the lobotomy, played to tone by Jeff Goldblum. The boy will take some pictures of the evacuated heads, showing how they are post-lobotomy. Dreadfully heavy stuff.
And The Mountain does not loosen its grasp. It has an act structure, sure, but loosely follows the usual rules of having one. There are movements in so much as character growth does happen. Sheridan shows excellent restraint, doing the most by simply not acting, or underacting when he is needed. Goldblum follows his lead, also restrained from his usual work, but still privy to flirtations. He has some women around and maybe Tye’s character should find one too. A spiritual healer played by the legendary Denis Lavant requests an operation for his daughter played by Hannah Gross. It is as close as The Mountain gets to being a love story.
The third act takes a turn when they arrive at the mountain and seek the spiritual healer. Lavant spends the third act giving a sermon on the nature of art and its relationship with the audience. He alternates French and English, spewing profundity that really sends The Mountain careening in an unexpected direction. It becomes, at this pivotal moment, a theater piece. A stage play transcending easy categorization or simple boxes. That is not to say that the lead-up to this moment is any kind of trick, but once we reach the summit we encounter a radically different movie that exhumes full-bodied energy its pallid first two acts couldn’t hold.