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.