As studios compete for prime box office position with big budgets and flashy titles, it’s refreshing to be reminded there are still artists committed to more introspective portraits of quieter lives.
Rick Alverson returns this week with “The Mountain,” a 1950s era story that, much like its main character, conveys deep emotion with few words.
“The Mountain” tells the story of Andy (Tye Sheridan), a young man who mostly keeps to himself. He lives with his father, Frederick (Udo Kier), and hasn’t seen his mother since she was sent off to a psychiatric hospital some years before. Andy works as a Zamboni driver at a local ice rink and spends his time alone. Early on, he loses his father and finds himself unsure what to do next. When Dr. Wallace “Wally” Fiennes (Jeff Goldblum) happens upon Andy selling his father’s things, Wally strikes up a conversation and ultimately offers Andy a job.
These opening scenes define Andy as a shy boy who never learned how to grow up and become a man. Every decision has been made for him. He is stunted by his mother’s absence and his father’s dominance. It is unclear whether Andy even has the potential to be a successful adult since he has never had the opportunity to learn how. Sheridan has his fans, to be sure, but in his career choices up until now, he has not demonstrated strong talents as an actor. “The Mountain” shows a glimmer of the potential that resides behind his perpetually mournful expression. Perhaps this is a case where the character matches his abilities. Or maybe there is more to him than we have seen before now. Whatever the case, Sheridan turns Andy into someone the audience can care deeply about.
The good doctor, Wally, is a psychiatrist who travels from one hospital to the next lobotomizing patients and building a thick file of supposedly successful cases. He hires Andy to drive him and take before and after photos for the medical study he is compiling. Jeff Goldblum’s natural charisma and charm become part of Wally. It is easy to see why Andy, a shy kid with no ability to stand up for himself, would willingly travel along with someone who had even a vague connection to his mother. In Wally he finds a sort of permission to explore his own identity, although he struggles to find the confidence to do so.
The two of them form a strange bond that seems on the outside to be built upon Andy’s need to learn independence. But brewing under the surface is an odd and unspoken co-dependence. Wally may put forth an air of swagger, but it masks his growing uneasiness as he finds his expertise questioned and his methods put in doubt by colleagues. By mentoring Andy and acting as a father figure to him, Wally can maintain the facade.
In addition to directing, Alverson co-wrote “The Mountain” with Dustin Guy Defa and Colm O’Leary. More of a character study than a plot-driven film, scenes unfold slowly, methodically. Alverson is more concerned with developing Andy and Wally as people than with moving the story forward and arriving at specific points. For easily distracted viewers, this type of storytelling may feel dull. But it would be a shame to miss out on such layered and interesting performances.
The sepia tones and drab costumes create a richly textured and lived-in world. It is not glamorous, but beautiful in its own way. This not only matches the pared-down look of 1950s middle America, but provides a visual framework for Wally’s unglamorous and often ugly work.
Much like its subjects and its setting, “The Mountain” is subdued and quiet. Sometimes it may be a little too quiet. It isn’t always clear whether that is intentional subtext or whether it simply doesn’t have anything to say. We understand, for example, how much Andy longs for his mother. Yet there is no real examination of his feelings for losing his father. And we get glimpses of Wally’s fading reputation without a deeper exploration of what that really does to him. But even with all the unexplored subtext, the rich performances make this a film worth watching.