Rick Alverson is a filmmaker who delights in unsettling his audience. His films tend to feature losers and scumbags; sometimes their failures and foibles are inexplicable but inseparable parts of themselves, and other times he invites us to consider the forces that may have shaped these dispiriting figures. In The Mountain, he creates one of his greatest failed men in Dr. Wallace Fiennes, played by Jeff Goldblum. Fiennes is a disgraced physician who travels the country advertising his radically simplified version of a lobotomy, a now discredited psychosurgery that separates connections in the brain in order to treat mental illness. While the procedure was sometimes effective, it also had debilitating side effects, often deadening the personalities of those who received it, as well as decreasing their cognitive skills. The Mountain takes place in the 1950s, as the procedure is already being phased out by the medical community in favor of less destructive drugs. Fiennes drives across the country visiting insane asylums, providing lobotomies to any patients the administrators will make available to him (and pay for).
At each stop, he likes to document the patient before and during the procedure through photographs, which is where Andy (Tye Sheridan) comes in. He’s a Zamboni driver in a tiny Northern town, where there’s seemingly not much to do for fun besides skating. In the film’s opening moments, we learn that his mother is in a mental institution as he narrates a letter to her on the soundtrack. His father (a surprisingly subdued Udo Kier) is a former figure skater currently slumming it as an instructor, though his real profession seems to be as a drinker.
Andy meets Fiennes shortly after a tragedy befalls his father, and the two set off across the country, with Andy documenting the doctor’s exploits with his Polaroid camera. Sheridan plays the character as a total blank, forcing us to decipher what must be running through his head. Fiennes reveals when they first meet that he treated Andy’s mother, and the thought of her being lobotomized haunts his every action. His wants and desires remain shrouded and blurry, but he becomes fascinated with one of Fiennes’ patients, Susan (Hannah Gross), and latches on to her as a source of stability.
Though Sheridan is ostensibly The Mountain‘s protagonist, Goldblum is the main attraction. He gives his most compelling performance in many years, and one of his few leading roles in as much time. The mannerisms and affectations that have come to define his endlessly meme-able presence are reduced to their lowest levels in decades. He’s a sad, pitiful man, clinging to what little expertise and prestige he still has, even as his profession threatens to bury him. He’s also profoundly blind to his own existence. At one point, when trying to assess Andy’s mental state, he asks him about his desires to determine if they’re abnormal. Yet, we’ve seen him prey on women at every roadside stop along the way, charming and then accosting them in lewd ways. He kisses and embraces the women he befriends at shady motels so ferociously that he seems ready to devour them alive, yet he seems more concerned with Andy’s relative lack of desire.
It’s hard not to hope that Andy will free himself of Fiennes’ malign influence at some point, or that the disgraced doctor will finally reach an impasse. But Alverson avoids any simple resolutions, instead giving us something much darker, and far more compelling. We can’t escape the darkest aspects of life, and The Mountain doesn’t ever let us forget it.
Editor’s Note: This review was originally published on January 26 as part of our Sundance Film Festival coverage.