As an actor, self-aware pop-culture figure and purveyor of cheap apartment listings, Jeff Goldblum doesn’t typically inspire fear in the American imagination. But in writer/director Rick Alverson’s The Mountain, Goldblum’s character Wallace “Wally” Fiennes represents the fading vestiges of a horrifying chapter in recent psychiatric science as a surgeon who specializes in performing lobotomies on sanitarium patients. He’s not scary in the Dr. Giggles sense; rather, his strong, almost overzealous conviction to the practice, rooted in the belief he’s helping every patient and their families through the partial removal of their transorbital lobes, makes your orthodontist look benign, maybe even comforting.
Set in 1950s America, The Mountain is seen mostly through the eyes of Fiennes’ assistant, Andy (Tye Sheridan). Andy was once a lowly maintenance worker at the figure-skating rink where his father (Udo Kier) worked as an ice-skating coach. After Andy’s father’s sudden death, Fiennes seeks out the young man to pay his respects. Andy’s mother was at one point institutionalized and fell victim to Fiennes’ orbitoclast, so the doctor takes pity on Andy’s lot and brings him in as an assistant to document his procedures and photograph each patient before and after treatment. The two then embark on a road trip, stopping at various hospitals to perform invasive surgeries on psych-ward patients.
Andy dutifully follows Fiennes’ orders without so much as an objection or response (in fact, for much of the film, there’s hardly any dialogue between the two, despite the fact they share many scenes and interiors together), but he’s clearly unsettled by his observations. While Fiennes is coldly calculating in the operating room, he’s a womanizing bon vivant outside it. Gradually, Andy starts to become sympathetic and closer to each surgery patient, most of whom are women. One such patient is Susan (Hannah Gross), a beautiful but troubled young woman and the daughter of one of Fiennes’ hook-ups along their route; once Andy begins to form a connection with Susan, he starts to challenge and protest Fiennes’ use of the surgery.
Alverson explores two fascinating themes in this film: postwar social repression through the psychological scrutinization of people outside the margins of normal society, whether they’re dealing with serious mental disorders or light homosexual confusion, and the growing shift from invasive treatments to a more humane form of medical science. Goldblum is a smart choice for Fiennes, if you recall his obsessive scientist Seth Brundle from David Cronenberg’s The Fly; as was the case in that film, Fiennes borders on obsession in regards to retaining his authority and place in psychiatry, even though he knows his grasp is slipping.
As compelling as Goldblum is as the ardent Fiennes, he doesn’t make nearly as much of an impression as Sheridan does as the despondent, sexually repressed loner Andy. Having previously appeared in Ready Player One and Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, Sheridan brings not only a brooding presence, but also a rich, textured despair that conveys emotionally confused masculinity. Despite the dialogue being few and far between, the two have a quiet chemistry, especially once you realize their dynamic is strained from the start.
The landscape of the film weighs in on its main themes through muted color palettes dressing down sterile interiors. Viewers are guided by visual information within scenes. And the art department—which includes cinematographer Lorenzo Hagerman, costume designer Elizabeth Warn and production designer Jacqueline Abrahams—provide gorgeous scenery to contrast the film’s wider discontent and misery. Practically every shot could be an Edward Hopper painting. Although the gore of each lobotomy is offscreen, you still experience visceral dread.
The Mountain is both serene and unnerving visually, with the unusual looking beautiful much in the same way as a Diane Arbus photograph or David Lynch film. Many shots have a strange symmetry, and the camera often cuts off the tops of characters’ heads as they face the screen while talking; in a scene in which Fiennes and his surgery team are posing for a photograph, they possess the stillness of wax figures positioned in a museum exhibit. Even further driving the Lynchian comparison is Denis Lavant, who plays Susan’s father. His long, meandering, drunken monologues in French follow their own bizarre dream logic.
Alverson refrains from presenting any judgment of Fiennes; rather, we viewers are meant to understand the motives and perspectives of well-meaning people such as the doctor, who hopes to achieve a greater good through problematic means. These types have existed throughout history, and they continue to operate today. With The Mountain, Alverson hopes that audiences can identify them within their own circles.
The Mountain was directed by Rick Alverson; written by Alverson, Dustin Guy Defa and Colm O’Leary; and stars Jeff Goldblum and Tye Sheridan.
Aimee Murillo is calendar editor and frequently covers film and previously contributed to the OCW’s long-running fashion column, Trendzilla. Don’t ask her what her favorite movie is unless you want to hear her lengthy defense of Showgirls.