Director Rick Alverson Picks Apart 'The Mountain,' the Feel-Bad Movie of the Summer
Two years before Neil Amstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted the first flag on the moon, the last transorbital lobotomy -- the one where a medical-grade ice pick is hammered into the brain via eye socket -- was performed in the United States. (The procedure wouldn't be outlawed until the 1980s, and by then, nearly 50,000 Americans would have been lobotomized since it came over to the States from Portugal in 1936.) It seems inconceivable that these two technological opposites could exist in such close proximity to one another, but is it really? Both presumed to better mankind, and there was a blind arrogance in idealizing these projects of hubris that killed many people in pursuit of a brighter future. Except one put humans on the goddamn moon, and the other left a not insignificant number of people braindead -- or just dead-dead.
This strange, uniquely American compulsion to prove one's mettle against all else, especially in the face of failure, is at the core of The Mountain, the latest film directed by the uncompromising Rick Alverson, who first stirred up controversial attention for 2012's not-so-funny indie The Comedy starring Tim Heidecker as a rich, aimless, and dickish aging hipster ambling around Brooklyn, New York. His 2015 follow-up, Entertainment, riffed on (frequentHeidecker collaborator) Gregg Turkington's Neil Hamburger character, a greasy, bristling, awkwardly unfunny stand-up comedian, following him on an unsuccessful tour around the United States. The Mountain, which premiered at the 2018 Venice Film Festival, is another sparse Alverson film that quietly interrogates the male condition, this time in the '50s when lobotomies were falling out of favor as a treatment to help those with schizophrenia, depression, and other mental illnesses. Our loathsome vehicle: Jeff Goldblum.
Dr. Wallace, or Wally "as the ladies call me," Fiennes (Goldblum) is a charming, but vile man in the twilight of his messy career performing transorbital lobotomies on his patients, treating it as a cure-all to sadness, lust, or hearing voices. He recruits Andy (a stoic Tye Sheridan), whose father (Udo Kier) recently died and whose mother is institutionalized, to join him as his photographer on a road trip, essentially freelancing his services out to different hospitals, asylums, and sanatoriums for difficult patients. The two later meet Jack (Denis Lavant), a French New Age healer prone to heavy drinking and rambling in Franglish, who asks Wally to lobotomize his daughter Susan (Hannah Gross). Andy and Susan, perversely, fall for each other, Jack and Wally disappear, and the couple stares out into the foothills of the snowy mountains.
Fiennes is an obvious stand-in for Dr. Walter Freeman, the man who popularized this exact procedure in the United States, his star rising after lobotomizing Rosemary Kennedy, who became incapacitated and institutionalized. Known to be an eccentric, flashy dresser, and a showman, Freeman would travel the country doing lobotomies for $25 a pop, sometimes sticking ice picks in both eyes at the same time for effect. (In The Mountain, Fiennes has a penchant for booze and womanizing.) He was the one who did the final transorbital lobotomy in 1967; when the patient died three days later, he would be banned from ever doing one again.
On the day of The Mountain's limited theatrical release this past Friday, Thrillist sat down with Rick Alverson to talk about the bleak inspiration behind his latest film, working with a sardonic Jeff Goldblum, and German literature. And for a guy who appreciates the abstract, Alverson generously offered up how he interprets his film's impressionistic moments.
Thrillist: When did you start digging into Walter Freeman's life? What was the moment where you were like, "Yeah, I wanna make a movie about a guy who goes around doing freelance lobotomies"?
Rick Alverson: I had heard about him, and I think it became increasingly more fascinating when I started looking into the moment in his life where he fell from grace and hit the road and essentially seemed to be running away from the reality and the ramifications of something he invented, which to me is uniquely American. The entire American concept that progress is built on, that very notion that we forge ahead, and the individual is celebrated, and that we move away from the unseemly contention with the limitations of the world. He's very much doing that, and with a particular brand of problematic maleness that's literally weaponized.
Increasingly, it felt like this is in a lineage of things that I've been interested in and that have bothered me and that I've explored in the past couple films. Particularly in the moment we're in now, where mid-century is being revisited and romanticized as a moment of greatness, when in fact, it was just the veneer of greatness. So it's a bit of an origin story of The Comedy and Entertainment for me. When the fat fantasy of unlimited potential and boundless opportunity and American exceptionalism was at its zenith. I think, moreso than before the war in concert with advertising and everything that was essentially branded "American exceptionalism" and the sort of aspirational ideals, that there began to be a disconnect between actuality and the narrative reality. We're still very much contending with the fallout of that. All of our problems have stemmed from our inability to look at the world squarely and say, What are the capacities? And what are the ramifications of all of this?
Was there anything particularly twisted that you encountered in your research that sticks out?
Alverson: I don't know if you've seen [the 1967 documentary] Titicut Follies by Frederick Wiseman. Just the conditions of those hospitals were just so, so sad and so gruesome, essentially just putting people out of sight. It really was taking all of the trauma and the disorientation and the detritus from the war and putting it quietly aside. There were exposés in Life that showed pictures of the institutions. It looked like the Holocaust, you know?
I hate the sort of intoxicating dramatization of these events. I think it's a really sad, artificial catharsis that happens in audiences where they feel like, 'Oh, I've seen it, and that wasn't that terrible,' and then they're totally unscathed. They're not actually contending with any of it. So it's kind of enjoyable, in a perverse way, whenever you're dealing with the material of history. It gets weird. So I just pulled back on the side of the artificial and made these places look like representations -- they're almost like wax museums. The patients are all tableaus, they're just standing there, and there's a sort of unreality about all that. I think it's so much so that some people [interpret that like], "everybody's lobotomized," or whatever. I want the audience to look at it and see it as a two-dimensional projection, a representation of something, and not real.
All these things that you're saying -- plus, even down to when I first saw the trailer for this movie -- all smacks of themes from The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann.
Alverson: Which I haven't read, but I'm a big German literature fan, so there's a lot of romance around even the American sublime and [landscape painter] Frederic Church. There's something about the bucolic wonderland that is it is very German. Strangely enough, I'm a huge fan of Thomas Bernhard, who is an Austrian novelist. He's one of my favorite writers. And he's comically the most pessimistic writer that has ever written. They're tirades of pessimism, so that it just breaks and it becomes very funny. But there's a book he wrote called Gargoyles about this journey of this father and son up to this prince that lives in this castle. And ultimately, it's like a hundred-page monologue of a broken God. It reminds me of the Wizard of Oz or something, this idea of pulling back the curtain of this sort of puppet master and it's nothing but a diminished pathetic human being, wearing all the attributes profundity and stuff like that. But yeah, I should read more, Mann [laughs]. I mean, I'm a fan of Robert Musil.
The Man Without Qualities.
Alverson: Yeah, [The Confusions of] Young Törless is really big for me, too, and I love the Volker Schlöndorff film after it. There's a prescience and an awareness. I mean, if you look at maps of America -- probably only, like, five years ago, there was a data-driven ancestral census, like every piece of information we had laid out. The New York Times did it, I think. If you scroll through the thing, and light blue was German, and it was like... the largest. I mean, by far. German blood, it's just everywhere. Something about it fascinates me. And there's something about an awareness of, in Germanic culture, the veneer of civilization, which is really, really interesting. And Udo Kier being in the film -- that was a little bit of a nod to the "old country" kind of thing.
How did Jeff Goldblum get involved?
Alverson: He had seen The Comedy and Entertainment was a fan of those, and Tim Heidecker knew him because they had worked together on a couple things. But we just kind of cold-sent him the script, and he had been interested at the time, doing a little more out of character roles. And he wanted to do something that kind of pushed against the grain his brand a little bit. He's so intelligent, curious, and he has a devious, really dark sense of humor that is bubbling under the surface. We get along really well. He was on board with a lot of ideas. And we were both staunch atheists that would rail in private conversations about the problems of unreality. We're both signed up for the thing, you know, make a little trouble together.
You've said in past interviews that your scripts are like "working documents" that you use as a template as you go through the shooting process. Was that the same for The Mountain?
Alverson:Entertainment's a hybrid between a very traditional script. It's like 65 pages, ultimately, as I continued to write it, but there's scripted dialogue in there, which I started to become interested in. My previous films don't have any scripted dialogue, per se. All of the exchanges are mapped out in the scene descriptions. I was pretty particular about everything that's conveyed and the tonality and some of the language, but a lot of that happened just in building it, so I mean, it looked a little bit more like traditional improvisation, although I think it was slightly different than a typical exploratory sort of thing. It was built a lot on casting, and I'm thinking about people's innate defaults for language. But then with Entertainment, I started getting interested in the artificial, weird nature of scripted dialogue and how it conveys things and how it can be stunted a lot. It's very easy to make it unreal. Well, not very easy, but it's pretty accessible in improvisation to find more ordinary cadences. There's a scene with Michael Cera in Entertainment, that's totally scripted. Everybody's totally scripted. But The Mountain is completely, totally scripted. Regular script.
Oh, huh. Because I had read somewhere that those tirades that Denis Lavant goes on towards the end of the movie that those were more improvised moments.
Alverson: I mean, they're not. His body language, like any actor delivering lines, is improvised. He's just an incredibly rigorous performer. And it's so funny because I read reviews. I'm interested in the reception of movies, I think about audiences all the time. I'm really fascinated by how the films are connecting, and how, what's working and what's not working, because I'm not just trying to make a conventionally successful film. I'm interested in, like, are people activated in a certain way? Or is this constructive?
But the Lavant stuff, people dismissing his performance or that part of the film because it's just like, "He's just saying whatever" -- it's so far from the truth. He reproduced that. We had his last monologue, we shot 13 minutes of it, and Lavant reproduced it. Even the code switching between French and English. Those were blocked moments, and he reproduced the performance exactly, down to every word. He's the most disciplined performer I've ever worked with. So I think that it speaks to his talent, right?
Yeah, that's actually more impressive that was scripted and he did that. For the record, I don't think that's a throwaway moment of the film.
Alverson: Oh, thank you. Some people are like, "the film comes together here." And other people are like, "the film falls apart here." And so the funny thing about it falling apart is it was really a way that you take... the protagonist is lobotomized, irrevocably changed. These are all very privileged worlds we're in, playgrounds, but we need to suffer with the protagonists. We can't just sort of just be voyeurs in the space. That turns into sadism if you're just totally unchanged by two people being brutalized. And so, removing the Goldblum from it, just pulling him out, was kind of like, wow, you feel it, something's changed, you feel a lack. The life of the film was sucked out, you know? And it was replaced by uncertainty and volatility and distance and confusion.
Tye Sheridan -- you knew from early on that he was going to be your Andy?
Alverson: Yeah, I mean, I thought of a couple other actors, but me and Tye wanted to work together again. I said, "I'm thinking about this project," and we came back to him. He was the first person on, by far. So, yeah, Andy's sort of built around him. He's really empathic and vulnerable and fragile as an actor. He has the capacity to play those characters and did them really great in Tree of Life and Mud, so it was fun for us to play with how he's naturally cast and some of his strengths and sort of remove them and denude them of their spark [laughs]. He's just a blank slate in it, almost searching for a narrative, and the film pretends to do that, too. And I love that the audience would be, like, desiring narrative, but narrative's really the problem the whole film looks at. These men's narrative with blinders -- it's justifying behavior, the aspirational.
With Andy, from the second that he appears on screen, it's sort of like, Oh, something's gonna go bad for him. At least for me.
Alverson: Oh, really? That's fine, I don't mind that. I like spoilers.
Yeah, in my mind, his path was heading towards a lobotomy. Was that always going to be his fate for you, or were you considering alternate ends?
Alverson: No, it was always that way. I mean, it turns into sort of a conventional love story with a very perverse ending. It's almost like Romeo and Juliet: she has the bravery and this act of bizarre, submissive rebellion. It's sort of like a "fuck you, this is what you want?" She even says it to one of the doctors, like, there you go. And she moves into this unknown place. And he follows her in, and they're unmoored there. But I was just so fascinated about what happens when we muddy the perception of our protagonist that we're supposed to use as an avatar to see the world if we as an audience don't know what they're experiencing? What happens to us? Are we caught in the film? Are we lost?
I'm such a huge fan of '70s American wandering cinema, whether it was [John] Cassavetes or Elaine May or Bob Rafelson or Dennis Hopper, this profoundly uncertain, kind of lost, beautifully unmoored wandering. It's our natural condition as Americans. And, you know, most people in the world but. Sometimes it's said, "Oh, well, that's just because of the war," but I don't know. It's something we've lost; there's so much emphasis on resolution and clarity. I think we're losing something about nuance and muddiness.
Ironically, I was hoping to unpack the ending with you.
Alverson: There's, like, multiple ends. It overstays its welcome intentionally, which I sort of love. As [Goldblum] drops him off, you can just see the credits rolling as he pulls away. He abandons the boy, and it goes into this, Oh, well, are we going on? Metaphors in films have always sort of bothered me because I think they're really convenient ways of saying "this has sense because you look over here and this means this." So it's just entirely representational, but it's not experiential. It's not like, what is happening to me watching the film? Not like, what am I thinking the film is? Because the film is a thing in itself. It's like social media, on Facebook, it's -- that is a thing. There's something happening to you when you're engaging, but you're thinking that this is community, but it's not. It's terrifying, you know.
But so, the end, I mean, because I find those were problems, it's been interesting to play with them a bit. There's an oversaturated amount of symbolism and subtext and metaphor in the whole film, and the idea of utopia is throughout it, and the aspirational models and modes of athletics and medicine and spirituality and this idea of the perfectible, perfect union between people, between the genders, between the past. That's a whole theme through the hermaphrodite of antiquity, the platonic ideal of the union of the man and the woman. This glorious being, the perfectible, perfect union that runs through the thing, and ultimately, the normative idea of coupling in the '50s. It's sort of consistent with the normative suppression of the prickly particulars of personalities with a lobotomy. And ultimately, the couple, they end up in this uncertain space of normalized passivity, and it's a domestic space. They do what they should do, they follow the dream, and, you know, ascend the mountain, and there's just not a hell of a lot up there [laughs].
Yeah. To me, this is not a hopeful ending; they're trapped.
Alverson: Some people have said it is. "Oh, it's nice, he found love." I'm like, "oh I guess so," I don't know. It's good they have company in purgatory.
Figure skating has a big place in the first act of the film, which I think carries a lot of these ideas you're talking about with gender, the perfectible. Was that something that had major significance for you?
Alverson: I grew up as a figure skater, so some of that is just in the indisputable footing for the film. And the idea of sport, I wanted this kind of ridiculous compartmentalization of the film into mind, body, and spirit. These three aspirational tropes. There's an idealized event that happens in figure skating, it's a rigorous pursuit of perfectibility. You know, the dream of winning the Olympics and this sort of thing, but there's an idealized nature of the of the skater, particularly the female skater, and there's also a very intense gender separation. It's considered a feminine sport right now, and particularly in the mid-century.
It's like Entertainment, too, I wanted people to feel the daughter missing. She's, like, the biggest character in the film, and she's not there. She's just an idealized sort of thing, you know. I thought that was honest because you're dealing with these men that are idealizing and there's a kind of weird, you know, the subjugation to the pedestal. And so the mother in The Mountain is the archetype, the unrealized other in the film, and also missing in this world of stoic masculinity. The missing part of his personality, his heart and these attributes that are prescribed to the feminine.
Right, and Andy and his mother do not reunite since she feels present through conversation, and that Wally did this procedure to her. And as they're traveling around, you're wondering, Is she gonna pop up in one of these hospitals?
Alverson: Typically, she would, yeah. It was interesting because, essentially, he starts to believe that she's somewhere else. That she's on the other side of this procedure, that she's on the other side, she's passed over into this realm. And he asked little questions about that in the planchette. And him trying to speak with her and him being curious about the state of these folks in the hospitals, asking them where they are, what happens when you change? And then ultimately passing over this threshold into that state himself to find her. I don't think she's there, I'm sorry.