Art is, by and large, up to the individual to determine its value. What is beloved by one can be reviled by another. While some engage in heated debate, others forgo intellectual discourse for out-right verbal fisticuffs when others don’t agree; however, in either case there is nothing taken away or given by possessing a different view than another. However, there is no denying the significance of art in capturing and conveying a moment in time. Whole identities are shaped around art, historical periods are examined by its art, and sometimes history itself is redefined by its art. This last part is what makes The Mountain, the latest from director Rick Alverson (Entertainment), absolutely fascinating as he uses a similar set-up to Norman Rockwell to capture each frame. In doing so, Alverson manages to capture an inverse of a period believed to be idyllic and pro-family, whereas it also was cold and isolating.
Andy (Tye Sheridan) is a quiet loner, spending his days working behind the scenes at his father Frederick’s (Udo Kier) skating rink. Soon after a tragedy, Andy is offered a job working as an assistant for Dr. Wallace Fiennes (Jeff Goldblum), a lobotomist, as he travels from one mental institution to another treating patients. Over time, the shy Andy and promiscuous Wallace form a strange bond, one which gets pushed more and more the closer they become.
The Mountain is a strange, yet daring picture which is, at times, difficult to quantify. Alverson’s direction is precise and measured, opting for cuts over pans or tracking, constructing each frame as a piece of art to be hung upon the wall. This becomes especially critical as the film presents 1950’s culture via the skating rink, home life, and social experiences; however, none are more poignant than the scenes which take place in the institutions. It’s at this point where the film possesses a subtext challenging what audiences considered the most American during the time period. This is where the comparisons to Rockwell come in as his paintings “Saying Grace” (1951), “The Runaway” (1958), and “Freedom from Want” (1943) are all staged to capture the essence of what America is. As though presenting the inverse, Alverson’s scenes within the institutions are staged similarly using stark whites, clothing and hair are immaculate, and there’s an essence of stillness even while in motion, as though challenging what 1950s America was truly like for those sent to mental institutions. In that era, people were shunted off, closed off, and treated poorly. In one such scene where a procedure goes wrong, Wallace takes a moment to process his initial shock before demanding a new patient. These aren’t people to him, but objects he can use to maintain his notoriety. Credit to Alverson and cinematographer Lorenzo Hagerman (Entertainment) for making scenes of unconscionable cruelty beautiful in their presentation. To be fair, the film doesn’t take place solely in the institutions, but the feeling of observation begins from first shot of the film as an inverted women skates in slow-motion and extends throughout in combination of set design, actor staging, and a standard visual 1.33:1 film ratio. In this regard, Alverson seems to be challenging the audience to consider first what they think about the “golden age” of Americana, and second, who is the one being observed.
What’s of particular note is the reliance on visual imagery and performance over dialogue. Within the first eight minutes, outside of the initial voiceover, no one speaks to each other. The audience observes a cold interaction between Frederick and Andy as they pass in the halls of their home, as Andy works the Zamboni at his father’s rink, and how everyone engages in play there. This continues throughout the film, requiring the audience to lean into the film, remaining focused for every detail Alverson presents, of which there are many. The script by Alverson, Dustin Guy Defa (Person to Person), and Colm O’Leary (The Comedy) seems, at first, as much an indictment of the presentation of the nuclear family as it is of the mental health system. Andy is desperate for a bond, Wallace represents a chance at that; however, their shared connection via Andy’s mother, a former patient of Wallace’s, makes all of their exchanges loaded. This is where the physical performances are so integral to The Mountain. Sheridan is constantly cowering, rarely making eye contact, clearly unsure how to engage in the world around him. With a few looks, a pursing of the lips, and a simple gesticulation, Sheridan makes his typically powerful and tall self seem minuscule and weak. In contrast, Goldblum plays Wallace as constantly expansive, verbose, and commanding, even when uncertain. Though Sheridan is superb in presenting Andy, Goldblum gives a truly magnetic performance.
Their relationship is but one aspect of note within The Mountain. The other is more metaphysical and ties both into the visual text of the film as it does the narrative subtext. In two different interactions with Jack (Denis Lavant), the father of Wallace’s patient Susan (Hannah Gross), he extols first on the nature of art and later on love. In the first, sparked by an attempt from Andy to create a bond of similarity, Jack lays into him about the meaninglessness of reproduced art and the absence of originality. German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote in his 1935 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction that, “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” In other words, something mechanically reproduced doesn’t bear the same meaning or connection as something created by hand. The exactness of the reproduction doesn’t possess timelessness but soulessness. Jack’s first speech seems, at the time, a condemnation of reproduced art, but it can also be seen as a condemnation of medical science of the time which utilizes the same treatment no matter the condition (electroshock therapy and lobotomies). Jack’s later speech on love seems an attempt to address a persistent narrative thread for Andy, a character troubled by hermaphroditic imagery, but lacks the same punch as the previous speech.
The Mountain is a feast of a film. One which must be considered carefully before exacting opinion or engaging in discussion. Alverson, Defa, and O’Leary constructed a tale which confronts several items at once, some more successfully than others, creating a lingering sense of doubt and despair. What is love if it does not nurture and lift up? What is medicine if it does not treat the cause, only the symptoms? What is the truth of America in the 1950s if we do not consider what is unseen? What is the truth of art if it’s merely replicated for mass consumption? These are complex questions which Alverson doesn’t try to answer within the scope of The Mountain. That is, instead, left up to the audience to decipher for themselves.
In select theaters beginning July 26th, 2019.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.