Jeff Goldblum dictates medical notes in his underwear, a long pipe dangling from his jaw. Figure skaters wield bright red fans as they circle a photo of Udo Kier. An inebriated Denis Lavant proclaims the virtues of a cheap painting on his wall. These are just a few of the indelible images in Rick Aversion’s “The Mountain,” a beautiful, challenging, and altogether singular portrait of America’s fractured identity. Known for his provocative explorations of outsiders with “The Comedy” and “Entertainment,” 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.
As with all of Alverson’s movies, the hypnotic storytelling takes time to settle in and encourages viewers to ponder its enigmatic pathways, not all of which lead to satisfying places. Nevertheless, this somber and lyrical achievement is the warmest and most inviting work from a director who traffics in an acquired taste.
It’s also the first of them to feature a somewhat traditional setup. Somewhere in early ’50s America, soft-spoken Andy (Tye Sheridan) lives with his hard-drinking father (Kier), who teaches figure skating and who rarely says much to his son. Andy spends his days at the rink in solitude, where he watches the women slide across the ice as if in a daze; an opening voiceover makes it clear that his mother was taken to an asylum long ago, and he lost touch with her. But once Andy’s father drops out of the picture, Andy’s left alone in the vacant house, gazing zombie-like at the black-and-white television. It’s the first indication of the movie’s potent themes, as Alverson digs 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 with the arrival of Dr. Wallace Fiennes (Goldblum), a traveling lobotomist who used to work at the clinic where Andy’s mother lives. Taking pity on the abandoned young man, Wallace hires him to travel with him as he heads from one hospital to the next, offering his services to lobotomize troubled patients. From there, the movie settles into the rhythms of an understated road trip, as the unlikely pair drive through a barren landscape as Wallace drives spikes through countless patients’ skulls.
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Alverson, whose painterly aesthetic utilizes the barren white hospital walls as much as anything else, eschews the grisly details of the surgical procedure in favor of capturing the doctor at work from afar. His tableaux-like images wouldn’t look out of place in Roy Andersson’s oeuvre, but Alverson’s less invested in deadpan comedy than an evolving sense of isolation.
As Andy’s forced to serve as the doctor’s photographer, he becomes a silent witness to these ritualistic appointments. Sheridan, a world away from the heroic deeds of “Ready Player One” (or, for that matter, the exuberant mime of “Entertainment”) 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 reportedly based on pioneering lobotomist Walter Freeman (notorious for lobotomizing Rosemary Kennedy), who actually did travel the country selling his technique until it was rendered taboo. Fans of Goldblum’s typically exuberant, irony-laced 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.
However, it’s Lavant who truly pushes the movie into unsettling territory, with a bonkers performance even by the standards he set in “Holy Motors.” He hires Wallace to operate on his daughter Susan (Hannah Gross), and 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. And then Andy falls for Susan, establishing an unlikely romance that only grows stranger as the movie goes on.
Lavant’s wacky, rambling delivery takes the movie into unwieldy territory, and destabilizes the film’s deliberate pace. Eventually, he flies off the rails — but then, so does America, as its post-WWII dream life gives way to the harsher rhetoric of tribalism and chaotic divisiveness that typifies modern times. When Andy returns to see Susan after dark, Lavant barks, “I am the future that is waiting.” While that’s not exactly a subtle assertion, Averson’s built such an involving atmosphere that it strikes a meaningful note.
“The Mountain” isn’t as involving in every moment as Alverson’s previous movies, in part because the grave tone has a tendency to rest on redundant pauses and ellipses that obfuscate the broader intentions. Nevertheless, the movie 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 teeming with trees; in the 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 it smarts.
“The Mountain” premiered at the 2018 Venice Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.