In one of my first weeks of high school, my freshman English teacher provided our class with a short passage to introduce a discussion of literary tone. The passage was a straightforward description of a walk through a public park, with details of trees, benches, and such. Then, in the penultimate sentence, the narrator mentioned seeing two men stabbing a third man to death; the passage concluded with another bland line in keeping with the earlier sentences. You can probably guess what my teacher wanted to achieve with his lesson: that a consistent tone in literature can normalize or else dampen the impact of content that might otherwise seem egregiously out of place, in this case a violent act. I've thought of this lesson often over the years, most recently when watching The Mountain, the latest feature by American independent Rick Alverson (The Comedy, Entertainment). The film exudes an eerily, consistently placid tone and trades in the subject of violent subjugation. It's ultimately a frustrating experience, though its central rhetorical device certainly makes an impression.
The Mountain takes place sometime in the 1950s in an unidentified part of the U.S. that's woodsy and underpopulated. Andy (Tye Sheridan) is a withdrawn man in his early 20s who lives with his father (Udo Kier), a former figure skater who now owns an ice rink. Andy assists his father by tending the ice; a memorable early image presents the young man driving a Zamboni across the empty rink, his eyes fixated on something outside the frame. Alverson barely shows the two men speaking to each other, and when he does their conversation seems fraught with subtle tension. Andy's father dies ten minutes into the film, and the older man's death makes little discernible impact on his son, whose demeanor remains quiet and affectless. Alverson invites us to share in Andy's emotional state through the film's style. The camera rarely moves, and when it does, it proceeds steadily along straight paths; the sound design is hushed and meditative, and the vivid sets and costumes evoke a cozy sense of the past that one can burrow into at the expense of the narrative content. Alverson will maintain this style throughout the film regardless of what happens. If you get on its wavelength, you may find it trancelike.
The film experiences a jolt with the introduction of Dr. Wallace Fiennes (Jeff Goldblum), who turns up at Andy's family estate sale following the father's death. Confident and talkative, Wallace seems like no one else in the movie thus far, and his presence signals a shift in the story. Wallace tells Andy he once treated the young man's mother (it's the first reference to her in the movie), and after a short conversation in which he does most of the talking, invites Andy out to dinner. Over Chinese food, Wallace tells Andy that he needs an assistant cum photographer to join him on his travels and asks Andy if he'd like to come along. Alverson doesn't even show Andy deliberating over the invitation—the next scene shows the two men on the road. It's a clever way of illustrating Andy's passivity, and it grants a sense of inevitability to the characters' journey. Like the heroes of a fairy tale, Andy and Wallace seem destined to go out exploring; if Alverson's tone weren't so unchanging, the narrative development might inspire excitement.
Yet the director achieves something more jarring after first lulling viewers into a dreamy complacency: he shocks us with the revelation that Wallace is a traveling therapist who performs lobotomies at mental institutions across the country. Throughout The Mountain Alverson presents the procedure in graphic detail, and the cruelty of this outmoded practice creates an unsettling frisson with Wallace's friendly attitude whenever he's not in a hospital. (Goldblum's charismatic performance, a standout in the actor's career, is so good that it puts one at ease even more effectively than Alverson's calming style.) Andy appears as unfazed by assisting a lobotomist as he did by his father's death—if anything, he seems to enjoy learning the art of photography. Alverson hints that Andy is fascinated by Wallace's work because it provides him with insight into the experience of his institutionalized mother, whom he hasn't seen in some time; then again, the young hero seems so emotionally numb that it's hard to say for certain what he's thinking.
The mystery of Andy's internal experience carries The Mountain for its first half, albeit just barely. As he demonstrated in The Comedy, Alverson has a tendency to drive his metaphors into the ground. It soon becomes clear that Andy, in his terminally subdued behavior, represents the perfect foil to Wallace in that he acts like a lobotomy patient without even needing a lobotomy, and for a good half hour or so, the film is simply a series of variations on this insight. Alverson changes things up with the introduction of two new characters: a recently released lobotomy patient named Susan (Hannah Gross) and her caretaker, Jack (Denis Lavant), the first character in the film to exhibit a genuinely explosive personality. These two join Andy and Wallace on their travels; Susan stirs a sense of sexual curiosity in Andy (perhaps for the first time in his life), while Jack spends his nights getting drunk and haranguing anyone in earshot with tirades that barely make sense. The film takes its title from one of Jack's antic monologues, when he comments on a mass-produced painting in his motel room. "This is not a mountain!" he yells at Andy. "It is a cheap dream!"
Does Alverson mean to imply that Wallace's therapy is another cheap dream, an illusion of serenity that's really nothing more than forced servility? If so, he isn't onto anything all that shocking or profound; I doubt there's anyone who still believes lobotomies are a good idea. Maybe it's best to take The Mountain as an extended mood piece on the themes of passivity, domination, sex, and longing, distinguished by several compelling performances and an arresting sense of tonal control. One can easily watch the film the way Andy takes part in Wallace's odyssey, accepting the events of the narrative without thinking about what they might mean—but you'll probably be disappointed if you expect the various ideas to add up to more than the sum of their parts. v