A Hammer to the Head
2018 / USA / 106 min. / Dir. by Rick Alverson / Opened in select cities on July 26, 2019; locally on Aug. 2, 2019by:
Rick Alverson’s The Mountain begins in a familiar fashion, mixing elements of Paul Dano’s Wildlife (2018) with Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2013). In this mid-century mood piece about the perils of masculinity, a doe-eyed cipher with a troubling familial lineage comes under the insidious influence of a drunk, horny, yet charming huckster. But Alverson, with the droll and provocative The Comedy (2012) and Entertainment (2015) behind him, doesn’t resemble the more humanist artists of those aforementioned films. Instead, with this, his fifth feature, he’s established himself as the heir apparent to the patron saint of cinematic condescension, Michael Haneke.
It’s a shame, too, as the narrative that sits atop The Mountain’s repository of roiling nuclear waste is rife with insights into toxic white cishet behaviors — notions eventually passed over in favor of perpetuating archetypes that explore artistic purpose and the viewer’s role in the cinematic apparatus. Andy (Tye Sheridan of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life , an actor seemingly bound to playing blank products of parental discord), having just lost his unloving and emotionally abusive father (a brief appearance by Udo Kier) finds himself traveling with a mysterious family friend, Dr. Wallace Fiennes (a perfectly modulated and relatively tic-free Jeff Goldblum). Fiennes equips the young man with a camera, teaching him the concepts of aperture and focus and thereby putting a fine point on film’s explorations into the limitations of vision.
That Andy would take Fiennes as a surrogate father figure is no surprise. Fiennes — verbose, intellectual, and seemingly caring — is the polar opposite of his biological parent, but the young man’s purpose on this journey racks focus pretty quickly. The doctor is a preeminent practitioner of lobotomies as a treatment for any given mental-health issue, traveling to facilities across the U.S. to perform the procedure, and Andy is present to be the documentarian of Fiennes’ “patients.” Their relationship morphs into just another abusive and manipulative one for Andy, as his past, morals, sexuality, and identity dictate that he question Fiennes’ mission.
A narrative hairpin turn, as foreseeable as it is, reconfigures the numbing and nearly intoxicating slow-burn propulsion previous to it. One of The Mountain’s big disappointments is Alverson’s creation of more interesting and intricately constructed mise en scène than in his previous work, before ultimately squandering it on his bludgeoning Big Ideas. Leos Carax muse Denis Lavant — as physically and mentally unhinged as ever, thankfully — appears and announces the director’s patronizing intentions in an extended art-as-metaphor monologue to his character’s literally brain-dead audience.
With that, The Mountain emerges as a cousin to Haneke’s Funny Games films (the 1997 Austrian original and his 2007 shot-for-shot American remake), an overbaked and self-serious “art film” thumbing its nose at an audience it believes relishes glib and violent miserablism. To wit, in the film’s very press materials, Alverson speaks to his admittedly noble intentions:
I want the audience to be active, to contend with the film as something outside of themselves. Too often films and episodic television reinforce audience’s perspectives and world-views as a kind [of] commercial narcotic. They are manipulated by forms and are taught to be unaware. I want people to struggle with and in the film, not just under the influence of its narrative but with the material of it, to be skeptical of it, to question its use and authority.
However, there’s a fine line between the didactic beating of material into an audience’s supposedly empty cranial cavity here and the resplendent deconstruction of film form into societal screed, as in the cinema of Douglas Sirk, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Brian De Palma, or even the more austere works of Robert Bresson. Sure, Alverson is likely fingering the average Hollywood tentpole that’s taken over multiplexes as his culprit, and it’s possible he couldn’t be convinced that the audiences of Black Panther (2018) or Us (2019) understand those films’ complex political quandaries through their generic framework. He instead reveals himself as out of touch with the niche viewer primed to pay for a ticket to his new film – the adventurous and erudite sort who frequents arthouses and might be familiar with the works of the masters mentioned above.
With Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino — another supposed filmmaker-as-provocateur — teased out similar ideas about the futility of nostalgia, masculinity, cinema, and audience complicity and awareness. The timing is unfortunate for Alverson, since juxtaposing the two recent releases makes his film’s failures all that much more apparent. Tarantino’s evocation of his cinematic truths is graceful, forgiving, and downright tender, yet still delivers them with the movable force of stuntman’s kick to the chest. The Mountain simply hammers holes into its audience’s brain, leaving them numb to its purpose.