The Mountain (2019) by Rick Alverson
Review by Andrew Swafford
The easiest thing to say definitively about Rick Alverson’s The Mountain is that it’s a film about lobotomies that makes you feel as though you’ve been lobotomized yourself. Set in and around the mental hospitals of 1950s-era small town America, the look of the film is clinical, beige, and soft around the edges (it shares a production designer with The Lobster) – and it moves with a tranquilized sluggishness. Critic Christie Lemire described the film’s aesthetic as “like swimming through cottonballs,” which is both in perfect harmony with the film’s setting / subject and at odds with its action. Lobotomies are violent, brutal, and now-criminal procedures, after all, especially as they’re performed here – Jeff Goldblum plays Dr. Wallace Fiennes, a travelling surgeon who has built his career on a controversial method of lobotomizing that involves driving silver stake-like instruments through the patient’s eyes (a real method referred to as “Ice Pick Lobotomy” – see above image). The procedure is always viewed from a distance and often not at all, which is, on one level, a small mercy on behalf of the audience, and, on another, a way of maintaining the film’s aesthetic of vacant remove, under the spell of which nothing quite feels real.
This decision to soften the impact of the film’s action with slowness, drabness, and distance comes across as somewhat trolling considering the film’s primary cast: the protagonist, played by Tye Sheridan, is understated enough in most of his film roles, but he is flanked by two performers known for their extreme eccentricity, with the first half of the film dominated by Jeff Golblum (beloved for his verbal tics and silly grandiloquence) and the second half dominated by Denis Lavant (acclaimed for his physical virtuosity in films like Beau Travail, Holy Motors, and whatever this is). Both of these guys get up to some wacky (alcohol-fueled) shenanigans in The Mountain, to be sure, but they are always kept at arm’s length by the anesthetized filmmaking that frames them. In a similar spirit as Alverson’s previous film, The Comedy (which starred gonzo comedians Tim and Eric in a film that was aggressively downbeat), The Mountain actively denies viewers expecting to get a rush from these performers’ swagger.
There is one moment, however, where a bit of wildness breaks through the cracks of Alverson’s concrete vision – it’s in the final act of the film, in which Denis Lavant (playing a man whose father has been lobotomized by Goldblum) goes on a ranting, drunken rampage in front of Sheridan’s passive protagonist. Shirtless, gangly, and lumbering around his living room like a gorilla, Lavant shouts somewhat incoherently, alternating between French and slurred English. At the height of his passion, he points to a tacky painting on his wall and yells, “That’s not a mountain – that’s a picture!” After spending well over a mountainless hour wondering what the title of this film might refer to, Lavant’s character answers the audience’s question only by evoking René Magritte’s famous Treachery of Images to imply that the film’s title is essentially meaningless – or about meaninglessness itself. It’s hard to know what to do with this moment when it’s happening, because it’s about negating a perceived meaning, much in the same way that the film’s performances negate what they are expected to provide. If it’s not a mountain, then what is it? If Jeff Golblum isn’t cool, then what is he? This film isn’t even about mental health, is it?
Rick Alverson is more than happy to explain. In an interview with Letterboxd co-founder Matthew Bucchanan (who has himself been interviewed by Cinematary), Alverson says that his movie is about American masculinity as codified in the 1950s:
“I’m trying to comprehend what fuels this blind propulsion of American progress in today’s political climate, where we’re romanticizing the white male privilege era of the 1950s.
It’s also something often romanticized in American cinema; if not in its subject matter, then it’s romanticized in its formal depiction. I wanted to take that on and watch it deflate and see how it would hold up to a more nuanced and muddy immersion of the era. [...]
I was raised at a time with influences that come from particular periods so there was a binary presentation of masculinity and I think it’s something that men are mired in. That has been problematic for men in a way that stripped away the wholeness of an individual...We wanted to neuter some of the romance of the era, to make it muddy and give it a bland complexity.”
Much of Alverson’s intent is borne out in the finished product: the film obviously deflates / neuters the sense of classic cool embodied today by a figure like Jeff Goldblum, both by formally slowing him down and narratively depicting his ladies-man conquesting as pathetic and gross. In a way, Goldblum and Lavant could be seen here as representing two different embodiments of ideal manhood – one intellectual and suave, the other gruff and powerful. And the film centering itself on Sheridan’s orphaned depressive expresses the core sadness of all this male mythologizing, as he is emotionally repressed both by himself and others (in the words of Matthew Buccanan, “He’s passive, then he becomes pacified”). There’s also the focus on the act of lobotomy itself, which both historically was and narratively is performed disproprotionately on women. At one point, Goldblum is given a talking to about his methods going out of fashion in the medical community – and with lobotomy as an obviously outdated synecdoche for the larger understanding of masculinity norms themselves, the scene reads as “good riddance.” If one is able to draw all of these things into focus in the forefront of their mind while watching The Mountain, it does seem like an effective tonic for the sexist mythology of the 1950s, both in content and form.
However, while I have come to understand in hindsight how the film works intellectually, I have some serious reservations about how well The Mountain succeeds in the moment. As the Cinematary guy who made a 40 minute video essay about the formal relationship between slow cinema and masculinity norms, I should be primed to understand The Mountain intuitively, to feel its gender critique in my gut – but I mostly felt nothing. It wasn’t until I came across Buchannan’s interview with Alverson that it even occured to me to analyze The Mountain through a gender lens. And I don’t mean to imply that because I didn’t get it, no one will (plenty of folks have), but as I explained exhaustively in my video essay, I think one of the real strengths of good slow cinema is that you don’t really really to intellectualize it – you feel it. It’s a particularly experiential form of cinema that uses time to make any given film’s thematics feel entirely lived in; whether it’s the experience of being locked into a routine, being lost in an unknown frontier, or experiencing the infinite bigness of the afterlife, these movie’s concerns are understandable almost entirely by moving through them temporally. In the case of The Mountain, moving through it feels like “swimming through cottonballs” (to borrow Lemire’s phrase again), and the viewer’s mind is liable to be too numb to connect the dots. It’s hard to figure out what a one-off allusion to Magritte has to do with lobotomy and what lobotomy has to do with masculinity when you feel like you’re being lobotomized yourself.