If maverick director Rick Alverson established his reputation with hard-to-watch dark comedies like The Comedy and Entertainment, The Mountain drives off into fresh territory that is neither funny nor even particularly difficult viewing, but unsettlingly dark and visionary. His scornful revisiting of 1950s America has a lot to say about the state of the union today in its most conservative, repressive dress, particularly its attitude toward free-thinking women with a mind of their own, who are quickly brought into line by Jeff Goldblum’s special lobotomy technique. Thankfully, this repulsive subject is never played as straight tragedy the way it is, for example, in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Practiced offscreen on docile victims in empty white rooms, it feels symbolic of how a paranoid society aims to castrate rebellious thinkers with easy utopian solutions.
Making the leap from Sundance, where most of his offbeat films have bowed, to a premiere in Venice competition, Alverson is in safe company with young Tye Sheridan, who won the Marcello Mastroianni Award in Venice five years ago for his role in David Gordon Green’s Joe. Additional Euro appeal for this Match Factory release is offered by two more cult members of the cast in the role of harsh fathers: the glowering but relatively restrained Udo Kier and a totally unleashed Denis Lavant, the French actor and mime known for his work with Leos Carax, who delivers incomprehensible New Age monologues in a delirious mixture of French, English and body language. Audiences are likely to be split into love/hate camps over this disturbing film, which is subtle to a fault and features entire third-act scenes whose meaning is not exactly clear.
Andy (Sheridan) is a hulking 20-year-old who lives with his sophisticated but cold father (Kier). He hasn’t been allowed to see his mother since she was institutionalized. He works at the figure skating rink where Dad instructs young girl skaters using a long stick. This may be the ’50s, but there are signs of sex all over the place — only Andy is too shy or repressed to find a partner. This could well relate to the obsessive image of a blonde figure skater leaping into the air, her ponytail flying: a surreal reference to his missing mother.
When Dad drops out of the picture unexpectedly, Andy meets his suave friend, Dr. Wallace Fiennes (Goldblum), who kindly invites the boy to join him on his travels around the psychiatric asylums of California and take Polaroids of his patients. The word “lobotomy” is never used in the film, but some hair-raising slides Dr. Fiennes shows to his colleagues illustrate his operating technique: an icepick through the eye to severe the brain’s prefrontal cortex. The operation is mostly performed on women, though in one case he operates on an all-black men’s ward. In a rare outburst, Andy asks the jovial Wally if this is the what he did to his mother.
Fiennes drives through pristine, giant redwood forests, visiting hospitals and shock corridors (yes, he also administers electroshock to patients from time to time), while Andy trails silently behind him with his big camera. Sheridan plays him as a loner who rarely speaks unless the good doctor asks him a direct question. His big, inert body and dull, fixed gaze make him seem half-lobotomized himself. Most anguishing of all, the boy is a passive witness to repeated horrors and, even though it’s clear his sympathy is not with Fiennes, he does nothing to stop the rising toll of dead-eyed zombie women around them.
The most controversial scenes pour in toward the end of the film. New psychotropic drugs are coming on the market and psychiatrists begin refusing Fiennes’ services. With his career in tatters, he gives himself over to bouts of drunken, demeaning sex with women he picks up in bars, bowling alleys and parking lots. Goldblum’s charm and naturalness is such that even in his decline as a butcher and a man, it’s impossible not to enjoy him onscreen. It is then that Fiennes is approached by off-the-wall French healer Jack (Lavant) with a pressing request to lobotomize his daughter.
Susan (Hannah Gross) is fresh-faced and with it; even slightly manipulative. She ironically admits to Fiennes that she hears whistling sounds, but she’s obviously much saner than her demented père. Andy, in his slow, cow-like way, finds himself very attracted. Tension peaks in the final scenes set in Jack and Susan’s designer house in the woods and should have provided a powerful ending to an intriguing story. Instead, a long rant by Lavant comes out of the blue, and Alverson steers his young Americans to a finale that may or may not hold a ray of hope on the horizon.
The whole film is gorgeous to look at, at any rate, with Jacqueline Abrahams’ production design poised between realistic sets littered with amusing vintage objects and unnaturally spare hospital wards. A dreamy feeling emanates from DP Lorenzo Hagerman’s muted browns and greens and soft focus. All the clues are there that Alverson and his co-screenwriters Colm O’Leary and Dustin Guy Defa are after bigger game than spoofing 1950s America, as the oft-refrained “Home on the Range,” crooned by Perry Como, might suggest.
Production companies: VICE Studios, Made Bed/Remergence
Cast: Tye Sheridan, Jeff Goldblum, Hannah Gross, Denis Lavant, Udo Kier
Director: Rick Alverson
Screenwriters: Rick Alverson, Dustin Guy Defa, Colm O’Leary
Producers: Sara Murphy, Ryan Zacarias, Alison Rose Carter, Eddy Moretti
Executive producers: Natalie Farrey, Danny Gabai, Vincent Landay
Director of photography: Lorenzo Hagerman
Production designer: Jacqueline Abrahams
Costume designer: Elizabeth Warn
Editors: Michael Taylor, Rick Alverson
Music supervisor: Chris Swanson
Casting director: Avy Kaufman
Venue: Venice Film Festival (competition)
World sales: The Match Factory