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Michael Leader

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The Mountain – first look review

Jeff Goldblum plays against type to unsettling effect in this zany road movie from writer/director Rick Alverson.

Graduating from Sundance launches, independent American filmmaker Rick Alverson steps up to a Venice world premiere with The Mountain, a peculiar and frequently perplexing road movie that boasts more star wattage than his previous films, The Comedy and Entertainment. Here, Alverson leaves behind his faithful troupe of indie musicians and comedians from casts past (Will Oldham, James Murphy, Tim Heidecker, Gregg Turkington), and assembles what could only be described as a veritable wishlist of idiosyncratic utility supporting players: Jeff Goldblum, Udo Kier and Denis Lavant.

Tye Sheridan – returning from Entertainment, newly in-demand following his turn in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One – is Andy, a withdrawn lad working in the beige backrooms of an ice rink, living with his skating coach dad (Kier, always a commanding, serpentine presence) and at an existential impasse. So when the opportunity arises to hitch a ride with Dr Wallace Fiennes, a charismatic physician who tended to Andy’s institutionalised mother, he grabs it.

Alverson utilises the predictable unpredictability of latter day ‘meme period’ Goldblum to unnerving effect, uncovering a strain of menace behind the cheeky, charming manner that is rarely seen on screen. By evening, Fiennes flirts with women over pinball machines and pontificates in his pants, pipe in hand, while perched on the edge of a motel bed. By day, though, he performs lobotomies on dozens (perhaps hundreds) of mental institution patients across the Pacific Northwest.

This is a character who isn’t preoccupied with whether or not he should enact his chaotic theories, as his instrument finds a way into his patients’ brains, in a violent, penetrative act, over the top of the eyeball and through the socket. ‘Wally’ Fiennes is loosely based on Walter Freeman, the real-life medical professional who popularised the lobotomy as an elective form of treatment for a variety of disorders. Making The Mountain a rare case where a Vice Studios film could very well have been based on a Vice article.

What ensues is an exploration of mid-century Americana and its many freaks, kooks and weirdos that is cut from a similar pop-cultural cloth to the camp-trash of John Waters and the nightmarish surreal-pastiche of David Lynch. Every fizzing cathode-ray tube, crackling record and garish cocktail hints at a collective madness that is barely hidden behind the novelty. An era in dire need of an injection – or, perhaps, a spike to the frontal lobe. Cinematographer Lorenzo Hagerman’s cramped, Academy ratio framing and Jacqueline Abrahams’ production design soon take on a dour, drab oppressiveness: an anti-aesthetic with an ambiguous tone that hangs in the air, somewhere between the ethereal and the funereal.

And then there’s Denis Lavant, who comes on screen in a manner not so much directed, as deployed. Let loose in the film’s late stages, he whoops, hollers, and drawls through half-French, half-English dialogue. Is he a cult leader, a curious distraction, or a curve-ball thrown into play just as the film comes to a close? The plot, or what of it that was moderately graspable beforehand, becomes, ultimately, elusive. Hard to enjoy and even harder to fully figure out, The Mountain is a tough climb.

Published 4 Sep 2018

Tags: Jeff Goldblum Rick Alverson Tye Sheridan

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