What Finally Ruins The Mountain Between Us
Idris Elba and Kate Winslet, struggling to survive in the elements—what could go wrong? (A lot, it turns out.)
I did not hate The Mountain Between Us. I did not hate it, as many others rightfully did—I did not find it irredeemably treacly or irrevocably dumb—until, that is, the movie’s very last scene: a scene so shockingly laughable that it made all the merely not-very-good scenes that had come before it fully, and finally, unforgivable. I won’t spoil it, but will simply say that the very last moments of The Mountain Between Us give the very last moments of mother! a run for their money—and that, in those moments, the film that had thus far been a compelling tangle of genres (survival adventure, competence porn, rom-com, celebration of the human spirit, etc.) revealed itself for what it is, and indeed for what it had been, in poor disguise, the whole time: a Hallmark holiday movie that happens to begin with a plane crash. Meet-Cute on a Mountain. When Harry Met Sally, except he’ll definitely have what she’s having because the only thing on offer is flame-grilled mountain lion.
It goes, at first, like this: Ben (Idris Elba) and Alex (Kate Winslet), in late December, are both stuck in an airport in Idaho in which all flights have been grounded due to an impending storm. They’re each desperate to leave, though: Ben, a brain surgeon, needs to get to Baltimore for a surgery he has scheduled for the morning; Alex, a photojournalist, needs to get to New York for … her wedding. So the accidental acquaintances hatch a plan: They’ll charter a flight to Denver and catch connections from there. Over at a private hangar, they enlist the help of Walter (Beau Bridges) and his trusty Piper: For $800, they’ll pass over the mountains and into their respective futures.
But then! The first of many twists! As they fly over the snow-covered peaks, as the ominous storm bears down in the distance … Walter has a stroke. Ben and Alex try to fly the little prop plane themselves; they fail. They crash, violently. They wake up, he with scratches and broken ribs, she with a gaping tear in her thigh, sheltered in the plane, but otherwise isolated in wintry nature. They assume they’ll be found—Walter didn’t file a flight plan; there’s a tracking device, however, in the plane’s tail—but the help never comes. (They will later learn that the tracking device itself has been destroyed in the crash.) And, so, Ben and Alex finally leave the wreckage in search of food and rescue—with only each other to talk to, only each other to rely on. (And with, fortunately for all involved, Walter’s golden retriever, who has accompanied the group on the flight and who quickly emerges as the real star of this film.)
From there: a perilous journey. A fight to survive. Fires started with the innards of airplane seats. A tussle with a hungry cougar. Math done about how many days the three of them might live without food. (Water, this being a snow-capped mountain, is fortunately not a problem.) And a lot of dialogue, the conversation of strangers bound with the instant intimacy of shared tragedy. The lines are often quite awkward. (“It’s Candy Crush,” Ben explains, pre-crash, as to why he’s staring at his phone during the flight. “I need to occupy my amygdala.”) But the lines are also meant to highlight how different—but, just perhaps, how deeply complementary—these two former strangers are. Ben, a control freak, is withdrawn; Alex, the adventurous journalist, cannot understand his reticence. She speaks in Hallmark lines. They both do. “But doctor,” Alex says, as Ben explains the workings of the brain, “what about the heart?”
Onscreen, this isn’t necessarily as silly as it might sound. Yes, the film’s script, by Chris Weitz (About a Boy) and J. Mills Goodloe (The Age of Adaline, Everything, Everything), is based on a novel that is itself extremely what about the heart in its tone; and, yes, if you think too much—the No. 1 rule with a movie like this is never think too much—you will begin to have questions: Why, if you are chartering a tiny prop plane over stormy mountains in the dead of winter on the day before your wedding, wouldn’t you tell your fiancé of your plans? Why, if you are the pilot of the plane in question, would you not file a flight plan? Does the dog ever get hungry? Does the dog ever get cold? How would the dog have survived the plane crash that humans, strapped into padded seats, barely did? How do people who haven’t showered for weeks look so astoundingly clean? Did they have dry shampoo in their luggage? And what mountain is ever, actually, between them?
The overarching question, though, is the one posed by the film’s marketing literature: “What if your survival depended on a stranger?” the movie asks. It’s a good question, too, full of cinematic potential—the kind of thing that would suggest that The Mountain Between Us is a combination of Alive and Cast Away and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. And, indeed, The Mountain Between Us, had it been a slightly different movie, might have been a tale fit for this age of anxiety about human connection—a story that could well have doubled as a parable for people’s shared responsibilities to each other in a moment with its own stakes of life and death. (Its director, Hany Abu-Assad, previously directed Paradise Now and Omar, each an Oscar nominee and each, in its own way, a meditation on those questions.)
The Mountain Between Us is definitely not any of that, but there is, nonetheless, so much to like here: the gorgeous scenery (“a million miles of pure-ass nature,” Beau Bridges’s pilot, Walter, calls it), fantastically shot. The swaying pine trees that bring the literal sap in addition to the figurative. The moments of breathtaking drama: sliding down mountainsides, plunging into icy waters. The fact that Ben and Alex bear an uncanny resemblance to Idris Elba and Kate Winslet. The fact that both actors are charismatic—Elba, in particular, is a magnetic presence on the screen—and that they develop, just as their characters do, slow-burning chemistry. Sure, Meet-Cute on a Mountain is a jumble of genres. Yes, it is clunkily written. Yes, Kate Winslet’s American accent is not terribly American. But, hey. You can forgive a movie a lot if it welcomes you into a theater and presents you with 103 minutes of gorgeously snow-capped escapism.
But then: that ending. The ending that reveals the paltriness of this film’s ambitions, and that reminds you how sorely these two exceptional actors, over those 103 minutes of screen time, have been wasted—an ending that assumes that you, as a viewer, are denser and dumber than you are. Endings matter, so to end this, I will simply offer advice: Skip The Mountain Between Us. If you’re in the mood to be cloyed, watch a Hallmark movie instead.