Rick Alverson’s new film The Mountain, which is set sometime in the 1950s, somewhere in the United States, is both an extremely stylized and a mordantly accurate portrayal of its time and place. The hero is Andy (played by Tye Sheridan), a glassy-eyed youth who is as passive as a protagonist can get; he spends most of the movie staring into the middle distance while bizarre things happen in front of him. If that description makes The Mountain sound strange and alienating, it certainly is, but this approach makes sense for the world Alverson is trying to create: It’s one that Andy can experience only by looking on in horror.
As a filmmaker, Alverson largely keeps his audience at arm’s length. His past two movies, The Comedy and Entertainment, each starred an alternative comedian (Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington, respectively) playing a misanthrope bumbling his way through life; both films were bleak stories suffused by frosty dread. The Mountain has a similar tone, but a wider scope, following Andy after he meets a celebrity doctor named Wallace Fiennes (Jeff Goldblum), a lobotomist who tours the country advocating for his method of invasive brain surgery as a form of therapy. Andy tails along to take pictures of patients and to escape the drudgery of his life, and from this premise, Alverson spins a surreal yarn about a country at its most self-confident and horrifying.
Fiennes is a fictional character somewhat inspired by Walter Jackson Freeman II, the real-life American doctor who participated in the notorious prefrontal lobotomy of Rosemary Kennedy. Freeman traveled to mental institutions around the United States in the ’50s and ’60s, championing the dangerous brain surgery and continuing long after prefrontal lobotomies were widely discredited. To Alverson, who co-wrote The Mountain with Dustin Guy Defa and Colm O’Leary, Freeman’s crusade speaks to the era the movie is satirizing: The 1950s was a time where an entirely unnecessary, invasive medical practice could succeed as a new frontier in science.
The film begins by examining Andy’s life with his imperious father, an ice-skating coach named Frederick (Udo Kier) who arranges epic, choreographed performances and belittles his son whenever he can. Alverson has always had an unsettling approach to dreamlike visuals, and the early section of The Mountain is full of them, including a particularly hypnotic shot of a group of skaters doing a fan dance around a picture of Frederick. It’s a low-level form of hero worship—within the skating rink, Frederick is a god—but when he meets an untimely end, Andy finds himself unmoored and in search of new mentorship.
Along comes Fiennes, the man supposedly responsible for the absence of Andy’s mother (he operated on her in an institution), who gathers Andy up and takes him on the road for his lobotomy-advocacy tour. If there’s one reason to see this movie, it’s Goldblum, an actor who has become a pop-culture mascot in recent years, but who occasionally reminds viewers that he’s one of the most captivating talents of his generation.
Yes, Goldblum does perfectly solid, amusing work in blockbusters such as Thor: Ragnarok (and has turned in more rote appearances in sequels to his ’90s hits Jurassic Park and Independence Day). But his performance in The Mountain is a disquieting, electrifying piece of horror-charisma, a perfect balance of allure and sociopathy that never requires Goldblum to turn up his energy to its usual manic proportions. It’s simple to understand how Fiennes lures Andy into his world by becoming a loving surrogate father, but it’s just as easy to recognize the arrogant evil that lies beneath his facade as a caring physician.
As Fiennes and Andy traverse the country, it becomes clear that the doctor’s career is crumbling, and that the countercultural movements that will soon sweep the nation are beginning to take shape out west. Andy eventually falls for a rebellious patient named Susan (Hannah Gross) and gets sucked into the orbit of her father, another type of guru, a New Age healer named Jack (Denis Lavant). The back half of The Mountain tries to reckon with this proto-hippie style of thinking, with the kinetic Lavant dancing and screaming for his audience—a more direct form of proselytizing than Goldblum’s sinuous monologues.
But Alverson’s ever-steady camera, and his caustic outlook, are better suited to puncturing the puffed-up ’50s than the anarchic, approaching ’60s. The sections of The Mountain with Fiennes are genuinely enrapturing, if chilling; they’re engrossing enough that whenever the plot diverged from them, I lost interest. Alverson remains a powerfully scathing voice in American indie filmmaking, and the way he can manipulate the star image of someone like Goldblum is something to behold. Unfortunately, The Mountain never quite measures up to the director’s storytelling ambitions.