The antithesis of any notion of cinema as an uplifting art is seemingly crushed by Rick Alverson’s movies — his filmography essentially open wounds left to fester and disconcert, but which nonetheless sporadically display a showcase for the willful neglect of what makes us human. He continues that with his latest film, The Mountain, which is a mesmeric, challenging and altogether singular portrait into America’s broken, festering heart. Known for his provocative explorations of outsiders, Alverson tackles his biggest canvas to date with this enigmatic look at early ’50s America, drawing a fascinating contrast between its mythological ideals and harsh realities. His vision of 1950s America bears little resemblance to the one that’s come to dominate the pop-culture imagination. There are no white-picket fences, no ostentatious displays of economic prosperity, no hallmarks of Space Age newness.
It all begins with soft-spoken Andy (Tye Sheridan), who lives with his hard-drinking father (Udo Kier), who teaches skating and rarely says much to his son. Andy spends his days at the ice rink in solitude, where he watches the women slide across the ice as if in a daze, his mother long gone having been institutionalized. But once Andy’s father drops out of the picture, Andy’s left alone in the vacant house, gazing stoically at the black-and-white television. It’s the first indication of Alverson’s potent dig into the alienated mindset of an American dream set adrift. Everyone and everything is a signifier in The Mountain, but Alverson’s slow-burn approach makes it possible to hover inside his metaphorical universe rather than render every idea in blunt terms. The narrative deepens its intentions when Andy crosses paths with Dr. Wallace “Wally” Fiennes (Jeff Goldblum), a traveling lobotomist who used to be Andy’s mother’s physician. Displaying a nurturing vibe toward Andy, Wallace hires him to travel with him as he tours from one hospital to the next, offering to lobotomize troubled patients.
From there, the movie settles into the rhythms of an understated, haunted road movie, as the unlikely pair drive through a barren landscape as Wallace drives spikes through countless patients’ skulls. Andy is disturbed by the operations seen in the asylums, which involve inducing seizures through electro-shock, then pounding the pick into the lower eye socket; those who don’t die on the table are left in a docile state just short of being a vegetable. “Where do they go?” Andy asks Wally. “The people, after we change them?” He identifies, to an increasing degree, with the patients. The question of whether Wallace, a drunken womanizer when not on the job, lobotomized Andy’s mother isn’t left hanging for long. Once revealed, the information colors almost ever interaction between the two men.
Serving as a silent witness to the ritualistic appointments, Andy feels steeped in stoicism. Sheridan, who’s a world away from his heroic stance in Ready Player One, spends the bulk of the movie absorbing his surroundings with a blank stare, uncertain how to perceive the doctor’s antics but going along nonetheless. Goldblum, meanwhile, boldly plays against type as a subdued, confident professional whose affability masks the mounting perception that his own world has started to collapse. The character is supposedly based on pioneering lobotomist Walter Freeman (most know for lobotomizing Rosemary Kennedy), who actually did travel the country selling his technique until it was rendered taboo. Fans of Goldblum’s typical exuberant performances will be caught off-guard by the sadder, withdrawn figure the actor plays here, but that itself is key to the movie’s unique spell, as it deconstructs the country’s psychology from the inside out.
But as the pair’s travels continue, we learn that Wally’s techniques are becoming less and less popular, which starts to wear on the doctor’s pride. Wallace soon accepts a private invitation by a peculiar, gruff Frenchman (Denis Lavant) to perform a lobotomy on his daughter Susan (Hannah Gross), for whom Andy develops feelings for which only grow stranger , and also the Frenchman reveals himself as a cultish mystic who proclaims an anarchic escape from society’s restrictions to a small set of followers somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. However, Lavant also pushes the movie into more unsettling territory, with a bonkers performance even by the standards he set in Holy Motors. Lavant’s wacky, rambling delivery takes the movie into unwieldy territory, and destabilizes the film’s deliberate pace. Eventually he flies completely off the rails — but then again, so does America, as its post-WWII idyllic dream life gives way to the harsher rhetoric of tribalism and chaotic divineness that epitomizes the modern age. When Andy returns to see Susan after dark, Lavant barks, “I am the future that is waiting.” While that’s not exactly subtle, Alverson’s built such an involving atmosphere that it strikes a meaningful note.
The imagery of it all, courtesy of cinematographer Lorenzo Hagerman, has a painterly quality to it, as Alverson is seemingly a committed formalist whose pure still images, are, at points, more slide show that narrative. Shot in the boxy, archaic Academy aspect-ratio and working with a milky-gray palette and painstaking shot composition, Alverson builds a miraculously consistent, tranquilized aesthetic that holds through every second of the film’s runtime. As we travel through vanilla hospital hallways (courtesy of Jacqueline Abrahams’ fantastic production design) The Mountain, at times, possesses the atmosphere of a nightmare, the kind built on awful inevitability. Occasionally, it explicitly blurs the line between waking and sleeping life, Andy’s unarticulated sexual desires butting their way into his world — scenes that connect uneasily and abstractly with the way Freeman’s procedure was sometimes used as a method for “curing” homosexuality.
The Mountain seems to be Alverson’s most involving movie yet, even with the multiple pauses and ellipses obfuscating the narrative. The film is rich with ideas as it fixates on characters roaming empty worlds, searching for impossible ideals. This time, revelation creeps into the picture with heartbreaking results. For much of the movie, the doctor and his disciple travel through green landscapes swarming with trees; in the film’s final moments, the world has been blanketed with snow, frozen and dead. It’s the ultimate wakeup call from a director whose career has been defined by catching his audience off guard, and this one aches. Set in a surrealistic landscape where humor and horror are indistinguishable, The Mountain is a film filled with hypnotic pathways, each encompassing into a portrait of America’s identity of rationalized, internalized rot.