The Mountain (2018)

Dir. Rick Alverson. Starring Tye Sheridan, Jeff Goldblum, Hannah Gross

The movie this most reminded me of was Solaris, and it had everything to do with the production design. It’s not the look of it so much, for Solaris is a film which constantly has something jutting out of a wall or something on the floor, but the feel of it. In both films, the space station and the various rooms we find Andy (Sheridan) and Fiennes (Goldblum) in are so vacant. They feel as if they are places just now being discovered by human beings or like it’s the last moments before human beings are wiped off the face of the settlement. There’s no touch of humanity, of life, spontaneity in them. Living spaces, at their best, are mutualistic. They are given meaning by the people who live there, and the people living there benefit from that particular kind of shelter. Take a Usonian home, such as the Malcolm Willey House. Without people it’s merely beautiful, not even immune to the ridiculousness of aging. With people it’s given life and animation, people to open the doors onto the patio and look up into the skylight. This film, set in the 1950s—truly post Frank Lloyd Wright, but still in the heat of his influence—bears none of those signs of life within its buildings. The world is stale, perhaps even sterile. If we didn’t have proof of a future beyond the moments in the film, The Mountain would be the last record of a world where there could not be another baby. It’s too quiet for the cries of a newborn. People would grow old, wrinkle but not wither, and then die silently. Burials would require too much effort, exertion, mess. The corpses would have to disappear from sight, vanish subtly over minutes. Alverson has created a world of something like chronic pain. It is disquieting and never goes away, but it becomes part of the body. The Mountain is a film where that disquiet never breaches the surface, but it is plain that something is off, and that the something is not solvable.

All the same, there’s a desirability to the world of The Mountain. It is occasionally quite beautiful, both inside and out, but that beauty is unattainable. At the end of the movie, Andy exits the car and bears himself out, shivering, into a snowy mountainside. He cannot attain a closeness or a oneness with his environment there, even if he might be trying to replicate a lost feeling of shoveling ice or driving a Zamboni. He was distant from that environment too. The film opens with a slow-motion capture of a figure skater in a blue-green sweater, a dark wool skirt, and a thick ponytail twirling on the ice, presumably someone who Andy might have been able to see while he was at the rink. It is a beautiful image, accentuated by the squawking of skate on ice and by the cool focus in her face. It’s a beauty as unattainable as the mountainside, something that looks like it will persist forever in those neatly contrasting colors, in perpetual motion that it would be rude or wrong to slow. She is filmed from above so we can see the slowness, the deliberation; it’s the same way that Fiennes’s car is filmed as it slowly and deliberately tracks its path on highways en route to the next lobotomy.

Because the rooms are so cold to the touch, so impossible to imagine anyone living in, the film’s objects gain more meaning. The house where Andy lives with his father, Frederick (Udo Kier), is a chaste one, though the hallways are maybe too thin and narrow for the two of them to truly avoid each other. The various hospitals have passed from antiseptic to apocalyptic. Bowling alleys are practically vacant, as are stairwells. These are areas filled up with Goldblum’s spidery body, insofar as he can fill them. Goldblum is wonderful casting more often than not, but there’s a genius in bringing in someone who is so famously slim and then placing him in these bare spaces. At once he takes up less space than you’d expect, especially in one scene where we see most of a room as he’s told that he was not in fact invited to the hospital to perform a lobotomy. But he also has this capability to sprawl, to be taller and wider than everyone else in the room, something octopus that allows him to place tentacles in vulnerable places. It’s a marvelous play on a star image.

Private residences gain some richness—there are patterns on the bedspreads and furniture with some personality—and yet they still look like they are meant to be looked at instead of touched. The scene where Andy and Susan (Gross) get to some thrusting sexual intercourse on the bed is shocking less because they’re having sex and more because they’re kind of wrinkling the comforter. Objects matter more. The pipe that Fiennes buys at the yard sale that used to belong to Frederick, and which is frequently in his mouth as he gets his fingernails into Andy’s skull. Then there’s the planchette, Andy’s recovery from that rummage sale, where he believes he’s received a looping and drifting cursive message from someone in the spirit world: “hello.” For Fiennes, the pipe is like a prop that signifies trustworthiness. A flirtatious, arrogant, disreputable man, a doctor whose stock-in-trade is rapidly going the way of bleeding a patient, becomes the good doctor with that pipe. A cigarette is seedy, especially in a man so thin. A good wooden pipe gives Fiennes class again, the way he wriggles his lips around it to playact all the presumed wholesomeness of television-era Fred MacMurray. For Andy, who is unabatingly taciturn, the planchette is fantasy. The photography Fiennes enlists him to do might, in another kid, create a sense of excitement and possibility. Yet Andy rarely steps outside the bounds of what he’s supposed to do with the camera, keeping primarily to documentation of the patients that Fiennes will operate on or has already maimed. The planchette is the one possibility in Andy’s life until he has sex with Susan, although even that is interrupted coolly but irrevocably by Fiennes.

Susan’s father, Jack (Denis Lavant), is the only person in the film who has the capacity for bold gestures, statements, wild movement of arms and neck. He’s shirtless most of the time, which is appropriate. Fiennes dresses like a professional who’s been professional too long; Andy looks like a gas station attendant; Susan wears the uniforms of nice girls of the ’50s. Jack dominates the last fifteen to twenty minutes of the film, which is a little unexpected but still effective. He rants in a mixture of English and French that is subtitled, mercifully, and which must also make up like half the dialogue in this movie. It’s a torrent of thoughts about the highest ideals, the strangest metaphysics. There’s a trace of Whitman in his suggestion that he and his mother and his father were all physically present, though he says so without the poetry. He’s crazy too, obviously. Almost everyone in this film is crazy. He just happens to be the one who wears it in the most noticeable ways, which gives him the presence of an oracle when he’s declaiming in the presence of two blank bodies.

There are two moments in the film where someone asks a question and it’s met with a silence. The first one is early in the movie, which I actually assumed was a serious failure with the film when I saw it at first. Andy sees a lobotomized person for the first time at a hospital, and he realizes in a rush what’s happened to his mother. We see him lying flat on the back seat of the car, and he challenges Fiennes with a question. Is that what you did to my mother? he asks. It is, obviously. He looks at the dashboard for the rest of the shot, looking a little sad. I thought at first that this was a mistake: Fiennes cannot believe that there’s something wrong with having lobotomized someone, and he clearly enjoys being the boss too much to allow something like a shuddered teenager to affect his centrality. It looks like he’s having a regret, which I couldn’t believe. But then he asks Andy a question in one of the movie’s sparest scenes, a shot which depicts them sitting in the most rickety folding chairs in some imprint within a hallway. Andy has his legs in right angles; Fiennes has his legs crossed, hands on his knee, perfectly still, while he asks the questions. He asks if Andy has been sexually attracted to women, which Andy confirms. He then asks the obvious follow-up question, in a fairly friendly way, and then Andy doesn’t say anything. His eyes harden, visible even from the position of the camera. It was then that I realized that I had been wrong about Fiennes’s silence early on. It’s not that silence means reticence, or guilt, or shame. Silence means anger, a frustration in response to a ludicrous, hateful question. And from that perspective, the rest of the film becomes menacing indeed.

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