A cool, tin grey palette washes over The Mountain, an “anti-utopian film” (as per writer-director Rick Alverson’s own notes) orphaned by almost inexpressible loneliness, an unsettlingly dark portrait of a rogue lobotomist and his assistant that percolates with the anxiety of a paranoid society eager to cow dissident voices into obedience. Polarizing as it may be—and certainly divisive among Venice audiences—Alverson’s fifth feature stands out as his possibly bleakest to date, but it is as surreally gorgeous as it is unflinchingly disturbing.
Trapped in a boxy Academy aspect ratio gorgeously framed by cinematographer Lorenzo Hagerman, 20-year-old Andy (Tye Sheridan) lives in a wintry Edward Hopper-esque Midwest. His German father (an underused Udo Kier) runs an ice rink where Andy’s mother used to skate—that is, until she was hospitalized for an unspecified mental illness, and never came back. Stymied by cold, laconic and alcoholic Kier, Sheridan’s Andy fritters away his youth patrolling an ice rink he never actually steps onto—watching as young skaters make out in the dead of night, or glaring at a “porn closet” other employees have plastered with pictures of naked women.
Adding more bleakness to the whole picture, it only takes a few scenes for Kier to collapse and die, leaving orphaned Andy with a whole bunch of stuff to sell and nowhere to go. Cue Jeff Goldblum’s Wallace “Wally” Fiennes, a lobotomist who shows up at Andy’s garage sale, claims to know the lad’s mum (has he cured her? Has he killed her? The script, co-authored by Alverson, Dustin Guy Defa and Colm O’Leary, leaves that tantalizingly ambiguous), and recruits him as his assistant—gifting Andy a Polaroid and driving him across the Pacific Midwest from one hospital to another, Fiennes performing lobotomies and the young man photographing the patients before and after the treatment.
It’s the 1950s, and Jacqueline Abrahams’ egregious production design conjures up a retro middle-class universe that echoes some of Lynch’s nightmarish visions, and the dystopia of Yorgos Lanthimos's The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Elizabeth Warn’s costuming dons Sheridan and Goldblum some pitch-perfect vintage clothing, and if Andy’s jacket has more energy than Sheridan ever instills in his character, the garments billow to life with sleek, suave swagger in Goldblum’s self-centered, womanizing and narcissistic Fiennes (I, for one, could spend hours watching Goldblum smoking a pipe in silk pajamas and slippers, legs crossed, as he dictates medical notes to Andy while gearing up for another night of debauchery).
Juxtaposed to Sheridan’s shy, introverted stare, Goldblum boasts a volcanic persona, which Alverson proceeds to shred with surgical precision. Once a medical celebrity, Fiennes is bracing for his career’s twilight: lobotomies are increasingly replaced with drugs, Fiennes’ hospital contracts are canceled, and the doctor’s self-destructive outings foreshadow a forthcoming retirement. Resolutely anchored on his mother’s ghost, Andy’s pilgrimage is imbued with a mix of wonder and disgust for the last man who’s seen her, and can hardly serve as her surrogate. There is seldom a moment of compassion between Goldblum and Sheridan, and even when Fiennes lends himself to a seance session Andy hopes will serve to conjure his mother’s spirit, the concerned eye on Goldblum’s face remains that of a lobotomist facing a potential patient, and a far cry from a benign parent-like figure comforting an orphan.
All along the hospital tour there are interesting musings on photography and ethics—possibly the richest and most provoking fragments of Alverson’s parsimonious script. Far more frightening than Fiennes’ unflinchingly robotic approach to his patients is the moral spatula he hides the obscene treatments under. Armed with a hammer, wrapped in a white coat, crouched next to a mute Andy, he points to his frightened patients as if they were curious zoo creatures. “Look at the woman. The woman is in distress. I am going to help her.” The magnanimous medical crusade shifts from “I” to “we” as soon as Andy starts to voice his moral dilemmas more explicitly, forcing Fiennes to remind the young man of his own role in the process: “we help them, and then we take their pictures.” But the picture taking Andy carries out—no less methodical than Fiennes’ hammering—is cast as an act of atrocious humiliation, a dehumanizing process whose full abject scope may be lost in Fiennes’ self-aggrandizing and pompous ego, but is all too clear to Sheridan’s fragile self. The look on the lad’s eyes as he finally musters all his courage and confronts Fiennes after witnessing a lobotomy—“is this what you did to my mother?”—is the zenith point of a harrowing and mortifying descent into madness.
It is interesting to see Alverson intercut his Americana with two foreign entries, Kier’s Frederick on the one hand, and insane French alternative “healer” Jack on the other, played by Denis Lavant like a Holy Motors spinoff on steroids, on whom Alverson zeroes in for The Mountain’s final, feverish j’accuse. A counterpoint to Kier, and certainly far more used than the German, Lavant thrums through the script like a shock therapy. Father to Susan (Hannah Gross), a young girl hospitalized for a mental condition, Jack requests Fiennes’ services, and patiently watches as his daughter is lobotomized in the comforts of their home—much to Andy’s chagrin, who had begun to fall for Susan. Alverson gives Lavant ample time to, well, be Lavant, and the Frenchman sputters one monologue after another in a series of rants so delirious they could hardly be scripted, in a spiteful stream of contorted Franglish that addresses anything from contemporary art, sexuality and cosmogony, and culminates with an ironic laugh at “free and precious” America—a land whose gullibility and frustrated spiritual search had coalesced in a thriving New Age scene which Jack embodies in all its deranged and ridiculous hysteria.
It’s a demonic and unsettling final segment that looks like a film of its own, but even Lavant’s unhinged energy is intelligently reined in by the low-key, achingly sad fate of Andy’s journey, Jack’s bilious anger muted down by the elegiac electronic whines and echoes of composer Dan Lopatin and sound designer Gene Park. They are the only truly anachronistic addition to Alverson’s picture, underscoring the glimpses of ineffable beauty nestled throughout it—like the film’s poetic, otherworldly and snow-covered coda. In a tale imbued with a claustrophobic sense of despair, such short-lived interlude of hope and charm strike as acts of bafflement. But that should come as no surprise. As a stunning summation of Alverson’s enigmatic filmmaking, The Mountain is a film replete with unsettling, rewarding pleasures.