2017 / USA / 112 min. / Directed by Hany Abu-Assad / Opens in wide release on Oct. 6, 2017by:
Whether entirely fictional or inspired by true events, tales of people enduring extraordinary circumstances and coming out alive are generally viewed as fertile soil for filmmaking. All on its own, however, the simple fact of survival isn’t inherently compelling, except perhaps as a morsel of strange-but-true trivia. A narrative filmmaker is normally obliged to offer something more substantial than a litany of harrowing and providential events, even if that something is only spectacle (e.g, Alfonso Cuarón’s breathless Gravity).
The fundamental defect of Palestinian-Dutch director Hany Abu-Assad’s romantic alpine survival tale The Mountain Between Us is that it doesn’t present much of anything, interest-wise, that couldn’t be gleaned from a 500-word Wikipedia summary of the feature’s plot. It’s as if the filmmakers hoped that bringing together a pair of beautiful, talented actors for a stark (and sexually tense) two-hander amidst the snow, crags, and mountain lions would magically create a compelling film. It doesn’t. While there’s nothing that’s outright awful about Mountain, it’s just sort of there, a handsome lump of frozen peril and middlebrow melodrama that doesn’t bother to justify its own existence.
Based on the 2011 novel of the same name by Christian author Charles Martin, the film opens as its twin protagonists run afoul of cancellations and overbooked flights at an Idaho airport. Alex Martin (Kate Winslet) is a conflict zone photojournalist who is hurrying home for her wedding. Dr. Ben Bass (Idris Elba) is a neurosurgeon with a 10-year-old patient awaiting a life-saving operation. Alex overhears that Ben is, like her, stranded for at least another day, and proposes that they split the cost of a private charter flight. Their pilot Walter (Beau Bridges) assures them that his little twin-engine aircraft will outrun the incoming blizzard, but it’s not weather that proves to be the real threat. Walter suffers a stroke while flying over the Uinta Mountains in Utah, and the plane subsequently crashes high in the snowbound peaks.
Miraculously, Ben is battered but not seriously wounded, and somehow Walter’s nameless dog comes through the ordeal unscathed. The unfortunate pilot is killed in the crash, however, and Alex suffers a gruesome leg injury that could have been fatal without Ben’s swift medical intervention. When she eventually regains consciousness, the doctor apprises her of their dire situation. They have all the fresh drinking water that they can melt, but only a few incidental snacks to subsist on, and a rather flimsy shelter in the form of the plane’s broken fuselage. Walter had been operating the aircraft under visual flight rules (VFR) and did not file a flight plan even for rescue purposes, diminishing the likelihood that any search effort will be able to locate them. Ben’s cell phone has no reception, the plane’s emergency beacon has been destroyed, and there is nothing but trackless, virgin mountain wilderness for miles in every direction.
Most of The Mountain Between Us is concerned with the story of how Alex and Ben survive on the mountaintop and eventually make the long, grueling journey back to civilization. Of all the hazards that the pair face, exposure proves to be the most insidiously lethal, and Alex eventually resolves that she would prefer to perish hobbling her way down the mountain than freezing to death while sitting in one spot. The film gives substantial attention to the raw, physical ordeals of deep snow, sheer cliffs, hungry predators, and so forth, but it would be inaccurate to describe Mountain as an action-thriller. Abu-Assad is plainly as interested in the character drama of Alex and Ben’s relationship as he is crafting any kind of harsh-minded disaster procedural. Predictably, their rapport with one another cycles through surges of reassurance, frustration, squabbling, and eventually—surprise, surprise—romantic attraction.
This slight preference for character over action set-pieces might have reaped considerably richer dividends in a film that was more invested in its protagonists, not to mention attentive to the nuances of their relationship. However, Mountain has such a slack, inch-deep interest in Ben and Alex, it’s hard to take its gestures of supposed poignancy and profundity seriously. Both characters possess big, anxious personalities, but it’s never clearly established why they repeatedly end up quarreling—or screwing, for that matter. Both Winslet and Elba visibly struggle with J. Mills Goodloe and Chris Weitz’ flimsy, occasionally ridiculous screenplay, which too often relies on assertion and circular reasoning. Alex and Ben wind up falling for each other because Winslet and Elba are attractive movie stars playing the lead roles in a romantic story, rather than because anything in the screenplay justifies that emergent desire. The actors are left performing all the heavy lifting, and while they each manage to sketch a reasonably credible character out of meager materials (he more so than she), the tenor of their interactions unfailingly feels inorganic.
This is a shame, since the back third of Mountain’s running time makes it apparent that Abu-Assad and the writers have some intriguing thematic concerns that were unfortunately given short shrift. The film’s lengthy epilogue ruminates on disquieting questions about the role of trauma in human relationships, and specifically about whether the apparent potency of a disaster-forged bond is illusory. These extended, months-later passages are a bit narratively aimless, but they paradoxically end up emerging as the most intellectually and emotionally resonant segment of the film. Winslet and Elba are at their most striking in Mountain’s last 15 minutes, when their characters bounce off each other awkwardly, their brief, intense connection having uncannily atrophied with time and distance. This sort of closely-observed human drama is vastly more interesting than watching the actors sob, scream, and shiver on a mountain.
Through most of the actual wilderness ordeal, the film is mired in the feeble drama of vague logistical bickering, predictable revelations, and tiresome logic-vs-instinct dichotomies. The tendency to indulge these latter conflicts is especially aggravating. It’s brainlessly reductive, but the film doesn’t even have the courage to present it forthrightly, preferring to sparingly dribble in mush-headed lines about listening to the heart instead of the head. Elba in particular seems annoyed that he’s forced to mutter this kind of drippy Hallmark dialog. (At least Interstellar had the courtesy to retroactively give its sappy sentiments some plot-centered heft. Here there's no payoff.)
Cinematographer Mandy Walker’s diamond-clear NatGeo photography of the icy mountain vistas is suitably lovely, with the Rockies that straddle Alberta and British Columbia standing in for the less-imposing Uintas. However, it’s also glumly uninspired. Walker and Abu-Assad lean heavily on the natural beauty of the landscape, shot in a crisply straightforward manner, for virtually all of their feature’s visual interest. This is neatly emblematic of The Mountain Between Us’ broader deficiencies. There are no daring, invigorating, or memorable images in this film, just postcard-worthy pictures of pretty actors placed in pretty (albeit deadly) scenery.