Dr. Walter Freeman may not have invented the lobotomy, but he certainly popularized it, particularly in the United States. Freeman’s specialty was the transorbital lobotomy, in which the patient’s brain is accessed through the eye socket. Known as the “icepick” lobotomy due to one of the tools used to perform it, this method made the operation quicker and easier to perform, not to mention cheaper. Cheap and easy brain surgery may not sound like a great idea to you, but Freeman really believed in the procedure, traveling about the country and reportedly performing it on as many as 4,000 people over his career.
Freeman is the inspiration for Wallace Fiennes (Jeff Goldblum), a central character in Rick Alverson’s The Mountain, although this film is definitely not a biopic and should not be taken as a factual account of Freeman’s life. Rather, the character of Fiennes is treated by Alverson, who also co-wrote the script, as an embodiment of the malevolent masculinity of 1950s America.
Early in The Mountain, Fiennes comes to a garage sale held by Andy (Tye Sheridan), who is essentially an orphan following the death of his father (Udo Kier, who’s just on screen long enough to let us know that he’s a cruel and controlling bastard) and the hospitalization of his mentally ill mother. It seems that Fiennes treated Andy’s mother, although he claims to not know where she is at the moment (he’s, cough cough, no longer employed by that hospital). He offers the young man a job serving as photographer for his traveling surgical circus. The purpose of this documentation is supposedly to show how much the patients benefitted by the procedure (before and after shots, in other words), but you may wonder if the doctor is not also on a huge ego trip. You’d be right, a suspicion borne out when, early in the film, Fiennes pauses mid-operation to pose for a photo.
Andy thinks Fiennes may lead him to his mother, despite his denials, and he really doesn’t have anything else going on anyway. He has a dead-end job running a Zamboni at an ice rink where his father teaches figure-skating to an undifferentiated group of young women in knee-length skirts, and doesn’t seem to have any camaraderie with his coworkers. In fact, he doesn’t seem to have any human connections at all, and is basically one big walking ball of misery. That’s also the general mood of this film, reinforced by a desaturated palette and an exaggerated slowness of movement so extreme that you might wonder if the director is an acolyte of Robert Wilson. When Denis Lavant shows up with a calculatedly weird performance, it seems as if he wandered in from another film.
If you want to argue that the 1950s were an absolutely horrid time for lots of people, I won’t disagree. On the other hand, I wouldn’t center the stories of two pasty-white heterosexual men (three if you count Lavant) in a film made to dramatize that point. Fiennes is clearly a creepy shit with a bad case of God complex, and lots of patients are victimized by him, but Alverson’s film is so stylized that it’s easy to lose track of those facts. Andy, the audience surrogate and intended conscience of the film, is too passive to do much for anyone, despite his obvious reservations about aspects of Fiennes’ behavior. The crude, unsanitary conditions in which Fiennes regularly performed brain surgery are true to the practices of Walter Freeman, but in a film so bereft of normal human emotion, these facts register no more than anything else on screen.
The Mountain is skillfully made from a technical point of view, and cinematographer Lorenzo Hagerman certainly comes up with some striking images. The question is whether that’s enough to sustain interest a film whose main purpose seems to be to prove how long it can sustain a mood of gloom. If you love stylization for its own sake, you might really enjoy The Mountain (and that goes double if you’re from the “expressionless means really deep” school of thought), but if not, you’ll probably find it pretentious and pointless.| Sarah Boslaugh