The antithesis of any notion of cinema as an uplifting art, Rick Alverson’s movies are psychic sores without Band-Aids: open wounds left to fester and disconcert, but which nonetheless sporadically possess a fascination as showcases for the willful neglect of what makes us human. Across a trio of unsettling indies recently — his off-putting odysseys into performative irreverence “The Comedy” (2012) and “Entertainment” (2015), and now the grimly anti-nostalgic period drama “The Mountain” — Alverson has carved out a bleak niche of feel-bad Americana.
“The Mountain,” in particular, which stars Jeff Goldblum and Tye Sheridan, feels expressly made for our what’s-happening age in which the country is riven by those who see a glorious past worth reliving, and those who wonder if we can ever move forward with our sanity intact. To which Alverson and co-writers Dustin Guy Defa and Colm O’Leary have responded with a mid 20th century-set downer centered on a traveling lobotomist, based on a real figure at the time. Dr. Wallace “Wally” Fiennes (Goldblum) is a medical professional whose psycho-surgical calling is to meet the problem of human frailty with an ice pick to the brain through the eye, and expect a pat on the back in return for his good works. Because, you know, the ‘50s.
Our way into the story, however, is through a young ice rink worker named Andy (Sheridan) who already looks detached from life, with his mother having been institutionalized, and his skating teacher dad (Udo Kier) an impassively domineering presence. When Andy’s path crosses with Wally, who obliquely introduces himself as one of his mother’s physicians (ahem, see previous paragraph), he displays a nurturing vibe toward Andy. Soon, Andy has accepted a job from the doctor touring asylums with him and taking photographs of his procedure, which Alverson spares us from watching (thank goodness) but which haunts nonetheless when we see the aftermath: unresponsive figures like dolls without batteries. Fiennes says he’s merely helping return patients to “an innocuous state.” Unsurprisingly, given the time, most of those being lobotomized are women.
But the pair’s travels also reveal that Wally’s technique is becoming less and less popular, which starts to wear on the eccentric doctor’s pride. When he accepts a private invitation by a peculiar, gruff Frenchman (Denis Lavant) to perform a lobotomy on his daughter Susan (Hannah Gross), for whom Andy develops feelings, we sense a turning point in what till now has been a travelogue of institutional misery, eerily punctuated by Daniel Lopatin’s moan of a score and Gene Park’s spare sound design. But Alverson, a committed formalist whose antiseptic still images, beautifully captured by Lorenzo Hagerman, are more slide show than narrative, isn’t interested in your desire for a resolution that makes sense. He’d rather take the chunk of atmospheric gloom still clinging to his directorial paintbrush and make sure he gets that last corner filled before sending you away.
You’ve probably figured out by now that “The Mountain” isn’t for everybody, but for the art-house faithful who like their critiques of American soullessness made with a humming austerity, this one’s a painstakingly designed (courtesy Jacqueline Abrahams) and visually transfixing beaut, even when it succumbs to its own zombified vibe toward the end. Goldblum fans can revel in a part so suited to the lanky actor’s haughty oiliness that he practically leaves a film on your short-term memory after each scene. Sheridan, on the other hand, is so folded inward as to be nearly invisible at times, but then again there’s the sense he’s meant to be that way under Alverson’s direction. “The Mountain” is, after all, a look back at a time when individuality was a curse with a scientifically harsh solution. It’s only appropriate that it unfold with its own distinctive aura of exquisite sterility.
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Playing: Starts July 26, Landmark Nuart, West L.A.