As his boss, Dr. Wallace Fiennes (Jeff Goldblum), flirts with a group of hospital staff, our young, torpid protagonist Andy (Tye Sheridan) fixates on a corner of the hospital hallway so ordinary it may be invisible, so dusty it may not even exist. No one usually notices seams like this—the literal borders where pieces come together, where we’re given spaces to live within. He stares at the corner; so do we, noting the molding and dust particles gone matte-green and bored symmetry. Until our attention’s suddenly broken by Andy taking a picture.
He’s driven here with Wally (as the “ladies call” him, a guy Andy’s only recently met who “knew” Andy’s “mother”) to help convince these doctors and nurses populating these hospitals and asylums and assorted holding facilities, all hidden within the morass of forests and mountain country spreading from Washington down into California’s Mt. Shasta area, of a controversial new mental health procedure Wally’s pitching. Traveling lobotomist, Wally enlists Andy to document his exploits. And for a man like Andy, who spends large portions of his day staring—at walls and floors and middle distances and nothing—observing and documenting seem like constructive uses of time.
Andy’s recently lost his father (Udo Kier, spectral avatar), a figure skating coach and similarly distant human presence, after recently losing his mother to institutionalization. Andy attempts to tell his father over breakfast about a dream, a vision to which writer-director Rick Alverson briefly gives cinematic life, of a naked man and woman “grabbing at each other” between whom Andy was unable to tell the difference—terrified. His father compares Andy to his mother, then leaves for work, where he falls down dead. Andy follows later, employed at the ice rink where his father dies, sharpens skates, stands around smoking, stares at things, then watches from a safe distance as his father’s corpse is carried from the rink. Alverson follows the calm process of death with pageantry: Skaters eulogize their coach’s passing with a simple routine on the ice, framing the immensity of Andy’s loss within the rhythm and incantation of the mundane.
Scrunching their world within a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, Alverson and cinematographer Lorenzo Hagerman seem obsessed with frames—with how hallways and doorways and stairwells and roadways and limited fields of vision define the bodies of our characters, confine them to estimable empty space. Andy and Wally—two tall, lithe men—say very little, as is the case with most people they encounter on their sojourn throughout the Pacific Northwest, spreading the gospel of Wally’s methods. What little we learn of those methods we learn alongside Andy, who comes to realize that the same methods were used on his mother, a former patient of Wally’s. They involve electro-shock therapy, then an ice-pick-like tool inserted into the patient’s frontal lobe through the eye socket. We stare as someone maybe dies on the operating table. “Bring in the next one,” Wally demands, blood splotched across his own eye socket.
In one of many hotel rooms they share, after transcribing Wally’s drunken notes for the day or pulling him from a passed out pile of local women he’s picked up, Andy asks his employer where “they” go. Wally’s unsure what Andy means, though Andy’s lately mentioned a planchette that was his mom’s, a device Andy’s been using to try to communicate with her, even though his mom isn’t dead. But Wally knows: Andy is wondering where people go once they’ve been lobotomized. That listless body with gross swelling around the eyes, that’s only a post-op shell, not the person they once were. Andy never questions why Wally does this to anyone, just acknowledges that Wally appears to be freeing these people from their flesh. Who these people were, who his mother was—now only empty space remains. So where do they go?
At what feels like an hour into the film, Denis Levant stumbles up to Andy, bending The Mountain irreparably sideways. After silhouettes of American men fill frame after frame, rasterizing ineffable depths of sadness and trauma, Levant marks the film’s conflagration. He plays Jack, the father of Susan (Hannah Gross), Wally’s latest patient and Andy’s only love interest, and as Jack his sole purpose is to contort his body inexpressibly. Drunk and mutated, his skin folded more than is possible, Levant warps all notions or explanations or mood the film’s held thus far. Which feels by design: Alverson adds subtitles to even Levant’s English, knowing the actor’s possession—I Am Jack’s Metaphysical Meltdown—isn’t the easiest to parse. Still, Levant gives The Mountain context, structure, bones. The legendary French actor puts into perspective everything to come before him, and everything to follow him—when Jack goes apoplectic explicating a painting (of a mountain) on his home’s wall, whooping like Ric Flair when Andy tells him about his figure skating father—so that The Mountain falls into sudden, stunning clarity.
Which doesn’t mean that anything actually makes any sense. Throughout, Tye Sheridan embodies Andy as a physical manifestation totally uncomfortable with what that means. Tilted and inward, Andy stipples through every set as if he can’t quite get the performance of being human quite right, and his many dreams of sex in flux confuse that alien feeling even further. He wonders where his mother’s mind went because that’s where he’s supposed to be—not exactly dead, but not exactly regulated by all these hallways and doorways and roadways and other kinds of frames and borders and structures that keep us down. By contrast, Jeff Goldblum wields his large body like the force for good it could be, knowing he holds sway with those in his orbit, but equally aware of how exaggeratedly he also holds the weight of what kind of travesties his character’s committing. Both actors—one near the end of his career and one only beginning—occupy the screen magnificently, effortlessly, as if they’re conjuring strange iconography from a collective traumatic past. It’s heartbreaking stuff. That they’re able to balance Levant’s performance with stubborn dreaminess is even more transfixing.
The Mountain is nothing new in light of Alverson’s previous films, The Comedy and Entertainment, though in his latest Alverson has most justified his formal rigor with a cast of characters who deserve the compassion such patience requires. The Mountain insists Andy is innocent, that he’s an unfortunate soul lost to the pastiche of history, his brain ground down to fertilizer for humanity’s more notable future. Whereas Alverson would have once ended his character study there, grasping to cynicism as a sign of life, here he persists: Andy seems to know that he’s little more than a cog in the historical machine. Still, he ascends that mountain. He makes it to the end. Whatever that means.
Director: Rick Alverson
Writers: Rick Alverson, Dustin Guy Defa
Starring: Jeff Goldblum, Tye Sheridan, Denis Levant, Hannah Gross, Udo Kier
Release Date: July 26, 2019
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.