Filmmaker Rick Alverson isn’t known for making movies that go down easy. His last two movies, The Comedy, a drama starring Tim Heidecker, and Entertainment, a road movie built around Gregg Turkington’s Neil Hamburger character, are extremely confrontational works, centering on characters who are unlikable and mining the funniness in being un-funny. His latest film, the 1950s-set The Mountain, isn’t as immediately off-putting, in large part because its unlikable character is played by one of the most likable men in Hollywood: Jeff Goldblum.
After his father passes away, Andy (Ready Player One’s Tye Sheridan) becomes the ride-along photographer of renowned electrotherapist and lobotomist Dr. Wallace Fiennes (Goldblum), who travels from hospital to hospital performing his gruesome treatment. At first, Andy, an introvert who only seems to find solace in the planchette he believes allows him to communicate with his mother (who was institutionalized and treated, in one way or another, by Fiennes himself), is happy to follow along as Fiennes drives icepicks through the skulls of his patients. However, as he becomes enamored of one of Fiennes’ to-be patients, a young woman named Susan (Hannah Gross), he finally starts to wake from his seeming stupor.
Goldblum’s star persona keeps The Mountain mesmerizing. He’s charming and personable, and so is Fiennes, a fact that becomes harder to stomach at the intersection of the doctor’s constant womanizing and the fact that the majority of his patients are women (and, in one case, a ward comprised of black men), who he renders docile by an invasive procedure. Andy doesn’t seem to agree with Fiennes’ methods — he’s also forced to pose and pretty up the patients so their pictures don’t betray just how broken their lobotomies leave them.
Things worsen as Fiennes, who at the start of the movie has already had his methods debunked, is edged out of the field by the rise of psychotropic drugs. His work and his relationships become sloppier, just as Andy’s reservations only grow as his preoccupation with his missing mother (and with Susan) come to a head. Whatever explosiveness might usually accompany such finales isn’t given to Fiennes and Andy but to Susan’s father, played by the French legend Denis Lavant.
Though a full foot and an inch shorter than Goldblum, Lavant seems to take up just as much space through sheer ferocity, lurching around like Frankenstein’s monster one moment and gracefully dancing the next. It’s Lavant who delivers the biggest performance in the movie — Goldblum is surprisingly muted, while Sheridan’s performance relies on communicating as much as possible through as little as possible — ranting about the fraudulence of art.
Strange things take up almost every frame of the film: a group of women doing a choreographed ice skating routine around a portrait of Udo Kier (who plays Andy’s father), a fixation on hermaphroditism that goes nowhere, Andy’s spiritualist techniques. They’re all quiet enough to almost be missed, but just present enough to add to the pall of dread that hangs over the film. (It’s no coincidence that the “normal” people around Andy and Fiennes aren’t necessarily distinguishable from those that Fiennes operates on.)
The film’s beautiful, muted color grading adds a similarly deceptive sheen of beauty to the grisly proceedings, dull in a way that echoes the repression of the time — a time that the tendency is to romanticize — as well as the empty state of those unfortunate enough to be visited by Fiennes. So it goes, too, with the music, which transforms Perry Como singing “Home on the Range” from something sweet into something sinister.
It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to anyone familiar with Alverson’s work that this isn’t a redemptive tale; even the faint note of hope that The Mountain ends on is compromised by Lavant’s character’s musings on the nature of art. It’s telling that the film’s title is revealed to be at the crux of the question of whether or not the facsimile of something is worth as much, or can evoke the same depth of emotion, as the deal thing.
Still, The Mountain is easily the most easily accessible of Alverson’s films, a drama akin to Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master in its portrayal of a sort of mentor-mentee relationship. Both films frame their pair — one charismatic and the other bullish — in a not too long past America, taking more pleasure in watching the shift in power and emotional investment between the two men than in necessarily reaching a clear conclusion. Easy answers are nowhere to be found in any of Alverson’s works, but his penchant for poking and prodding the brain is vastly preferable to feeling nothing at all.
The Mountain is in theaters now.