BUCKLE UP, CINEDUMP, THINGS ARE ABOUT TO GET VERY ARTY.
After setting a manic, surreal tone with Greener Grass, the Oak Cliff Film Festival dramatically shifted gears with The Mountain, a meditative tale of love, loneliness, and transcendent madness.
Starring Jeff Goldblum and Tye Sheridan, The Mountain tells the story of young, desperately sad ice rink employee, Andy. With a mother locked away in a mental institution and a drunken, distant father (Udo Kier), Andy’s life is bland and joyless. Then, when his father dies unexpectedly, Andy is suddenly unmoored, struggling to survive on his meager ice rink income. It’s at this point that he meets, Dr. Wallace Fiennes (Jeff Goldblum), a traveling lobotomist and fellow lost soul. Fiennes offers Andy a chance at gainful employment as his assistant, and as an added temptation, he dangles the idea that he can reunite the boy with his vanished mother whom he claims to have treated.
The first two acts of The Mountain are a beautifully realized, gorgeously photographed journey into the perils of intimacy. Fiennes, as played by Goldblum, is a shabby showman, complete with ill-fitting clothes and tons of libidinous charm. He showers Andy with the attention he never received from his biological father, treating him like an equal, and even claiming a blood kinship to the boy to the various women he tries (mostly successfully) to seduce. He even teaches Andy photography, partly out of a narcissistic need to see his lobotomies documented, but the art form gives the almost completely mute Andy a way to express his sorrow and longing. As Andy begins to see the cracks in his mentor’s persona, as he experiments with photography and the occult (he finds a planchette among his mother’s belongings and uses this to try to connect with her), and as he comes to see the essential inhumanity of lobotomies, the stress gets to him. When his first would-be sexual encounter with an older woman (arranged by Fiennes) leads him to a fragile, damaged angel in the form of Suzanne, a young mental patient, Andy must ultimately break from Fiennes’ influence.
There’s a lot to unpack with this movie, so I’ll start with the positives. First, the cinematography is simply breathtaking. Reminiscent of the haunting, disturbing photography of Gregory Crewdson, every frame of this movie was staged with the utmost care and an eye to pure, aesthetic wonder. Director Rick Alverson sets himself the monumental task of giving us some of the ugliest, grimiest settings (roadside hook-up hotels, dirty mental institutions, the back rooms of a skating rink pasted over with pornography) and transforms them into tense, visual metaphors, humming with isolation, grief and longing. One scene features Jeff Goldblum’s character desperately mauling a young woman in front of the blearily lit motel doorway. As the two of them collapse on the filthy floor, the drunken ecstasy and pain on Goldblum’s face is grotesquely tragic, bathed in a halo of sublime, smudgey light.
Which brings me to the film’s other bragging point: Jeff Goldblum’s greatest performance. I know those could be construed as fighting words since Goldblum is (and I say this without a trace of irony) one of our greatest national treasures. However, one of the delights of Jeff Goldblum is his Jeff Goldblumness, his talent at capturing and portraying the wonder that is Jeff Goldblum. The platonic ideal of a sexy, eccentric nerd, ever since The Fly, Jeff Goldblum has been playing some delightful variant on this archetype ever since (most notably in the type’s purest incarnation as Dr. Malcolm in Jurassic Park). But here, Goldblum is really acting, completely losing his fun, lovable personality in all the slimey grossness of Dr. Fiennes. And as Fiennes, he has a nearly impossible job. The doctor represents a unique soul-sickness in American culture--lustful, manipulative, exploitative, too doggedly set in destructive patterns he’s too lazy to change, Fiennes represents all the sins of American masculinity generally, and the abusiveness of the medical industry specifically. Targeting women, minorities, and people who fall just slightly left of the average, Fiennes literally rips people’s minds apart, not curing so much as obliterating, and when he turns this violence against the sweet, sympathetic Andy, it’s hard to bear. But, at the same time, Goldblum invests Fiennes with a sadness and tragic grandeur a sleazeball like him doesn’t necessarily deserve. In fact, when Goldblum disappears at the end of the film’s heartbreaking second act, the movie never recovers from his absence.
And that brings us to the problematic third act of The Mountain. Fiennes disappears and leaves Andy in the care of fellow lobotomy victim Suzanne and her troubled, alcoholic father, Jack. Jack, a snarling, angry mystic, becomes the lynchpin of the third act, interrupting the film’s beautiful flow to deliver two bombastic, inebriated monologues. It’s Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund for people who don’t have time for schmaltzy German mysticism--basically pseudo-profundities about soul mates, and enlightenment, and searching for the pinnacle of human spiritual experience. After the graceful, fraught, hour plus guided meditation of the first two acts, having the film stop so a beer fool can mansplain eternity and existentialism to the audience is the ultimate test of patience.
To the film’s credit, Andy does not succumb to the two abusive systems of masculinity presented by both Fiennes and Jack. However, the film does enter some risky territory as far as committing some pretty dire gender essentializing. There is a difference between exploring archetypes to better understand the cultural underpinnings that make us interpret gender and experience in certain societally coded ways, and The Mountain starts off using the abusiveness of the mental health care industry to explore this. But by the time Fiennes dumps Andy, we’ve been given silent, beatific Suzanne to stand in for Andy’s intangible mother. The perfect manic-pixie dream girl, she’s passive, sexually available, and poseable as a porcelain doll. This last act turn toward reductive, simplistic representation occurs so late it almost wrecks what had until that point been a thoughtful, lyrical meditation.
Despite its definite unevenness (the script strikes me as being one more draft away from perfection), check out The Mountain. Yeah, it can be self-indulgent, ultra-arty, Existentialism light, but it’s also gorgeously filmed and boasts a great actor’s greatest performance.