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This is a special reward available to Patreon patrons who pledge at the $10 or $20 a month levels. Each month those patrons will pick a film for me to review. If they choose, they also get to include some of their thoughts about the movie. This Pick comes from Matt Harris.
The Mountain (2019)
Written & Directed by Rick Alverson
Rick Alverson has very little interest in entertaining you. In fact, he has no interest in it. To a lot of people, that would be shocking. Don’t movies exist to entertain? Well, some of them do. Art can serve several purposes, but Western audiences have clearly pigeonholed movies into escapism. Alverson sees movies as a form of confrontation. You are confronted with visuals and sound along with the story. All these elements working in concert can create discomfort in the viewer if arranged correctly. Alverson accomplished this previously in his more notable work, The Comedy and (ironically enough) Entertainment. But I think The Mountain is his most accessible of these three, more narratively driven but still steeped in themes of alienation & anger that characters do not know how to express.
Andy (Tye Sheridan) spends his days working in his father’s (Udo Kier) ice rink. Sometime before the film starts, Andy’s mother has been institutionalized & lobotomized. He assumes she’s dead as his father removed her presence from their life around the time of the procedure. Another loss occurs when Tye’s father drops dead from a heart attack on the ice. Andy is visited by Dr. Wallace Fiennes (Jeff Goldblum), the man who performed the lobotomy. He invites Andy to accompany him as he works at various mental hospitals, having the young man document the work in photographs. Andy’s grip on reality is highly fragile; most nights, he uses a planchette to try and contact his mother’s spirit after work. Eventually, he meets a young patient close to his age, Susan, whose father is having the procedure performed on her. It becomes clear that Dr. Fiennes is riddled with guilt over what he does but wants to give guidance to Andy, despite being terrible at it.
Closeting our disabled is a common occurrence in the United States. I can’t really speak for other parts of the world, but from what I saw growing up, disability makes Americans uncomfortable. Eugenics has always been a big part of the culture, easily seen in the way BIPOC were treated as subhuman and disposable up to the present day. So if you have an obvious physical or mental disability, it will be hidden away. The only caveat might be if you are a child. We love to infantilize the disabled in America, and it’s simple with kids. In the documentary Crip Camp, some fascinating discussions are had among the teenage/young adult disabled campers about how their parents just refuse to entertain that they are of sexual maturity and might have those desires.
Andy goes through a transformation throughout the film, seeing these marginalized people and their plight up close. So much of their suffering doesn’t come from their particular condition but rather a system that refuses to listen to them & provide them with support. Mental disabilities are simply a roadblock to the person being a productive laborer for some company. If they cannot be cured with a zap to the brain or a quick cut across the brain, then the culture would rather they just be made invisible. It also doesn’t help that nowhere in Andy’s life can he find a male role model to guide him. His father has put up walls and won’t talk about Andy’s mother, Dr. Fiennes is a guilt-ridden drunkard whose practice is finally being seen by some medical professionals as barbaric, and Susan’s father wants a quick solution to his rebellious daughter. Andy understands that it will destroy him if he doesn’t make himself malleable to this profoundly oppressive world. But he simply cannot do that.
Yet, Alverson is too clever to simply hand us a melodrama. This is a jarring psychological nightmare. The Mountain from the title comes from a painting of said landform. Andy remembers his mom having the painting when he sees it in Susan’s house. Her father eventually becomes annoyed with his obsession with the picture and has an outburst. He tells Andy that these are cheap dime store paintings, the one his mother had was just a copy of a copy, and it holds no special meaning. The man screams, “Art is a thought for which there is no other form in the whole wide world. That’s not a mountain! That’s a picture!” Followed by, “Americans… you are a precious race. Precious and free!”
That final line starts to reveal what Alverson is really working at. So many people locked up in mental institutions over the centuries have often been artistically inclined. Where standard forms of communication fail, art can often serve as a means for a person to express their inner world. Art exists outside of language and, in many of the artists I most appreciate, is a distillation of emotions & the subconscious, a connection to something primal and much more grounded in our nature than the modern systems & structures we live under. Andy struggles the entire film with how to express what is happening inside him, and his photography for Dr. Fiennes is a small way of relieving that. Through photographing, Andy connects with the person in front of him. They sit almost knee-to-knee in folding chairs, speaking only as much as they have to, as Andy tries to capture the people before Dr. Fiennes’s chisel ends what spark is left inside them.
I saw this movie referred to as “watching a photograph decay,” which is a pretty good summation. This movie is artifice, an attempt to replicate a period (the 1950s), a place (East Coast U.S.), and the fragile psyche of someone trying to hold onto their own sanity. But it is ultimately none of these; it is just a replication. Art is the process of replicating moods & feelings to see if, somewhere along the way, we can find at least some crumb of the truth. Andy’s experiences are nearly incoherent from his perspective. There’s so much tension inside him as he tries to make sense of the horror he sees people perform on each other that he will either end up catatonic or explode. By the end, you can see that it’s not Andy and these mental patients that have gone insane but the entirety of the world, completely disconnected from nature and themselves.