If you only see one movie about a lobotomist this summer, make it Rick Alverson’s “The Mountain.”
Jeff Goldblum plays a traveling salesman who happens to be selling a particular set of skills, icepick lobotomies. Set during 1950s America, the film is loosely based on neurologist, Walter J. Freeman who perfected the 10-minute procedure which involves inserting a surgical tool called an orbitoclast through the top of the eye socket and then tapping it with a small hammer to puncture the brain. He performed over 2,500 of these procedures during his lifetime.
Tye Sheridan plays a Zamboni driver who is recruited by Goldblum to photograph his patients as the two embark on an asylum road tour.
The audience is taken on a surreal journey that begins at the home of ice rink employee Andy (Tye Sheridan) and his austere father Frederick (Udo Kier), a figure-skating coach. Andy’s mother was committed to a sanitarium years ago and now he spends most of his time working at the rink for his hard-drinking father longing for the mother who disappeared so long ago.
Unfortunately, we don’t get to see much of Kier as his character passes away quickly leaving Andy all alone (look for a cameo by the always wonderful Larry Fessenden who is also credited as associate producer). For such a bleak film there are fleeting moments of offbeat beauty like when Frederick’s students pay tribute to their late teacher with a synchronized skating scene straight out of a 1940 Twentieth Century-Fox film starring Sonja Henie.
The dialogue is sparse for Sheridan’s Andy who floats through the film contemplating his next move while harboring repressed emotions for his institutionalized mother. In walks the charismatic Dr. Wallace Fiennes (Jeff Goldblum) or as the girls call him “Wally,” a friend of the family who introduces himself as one of the physicians who used to treat his mother. Wally offers Andy a job on the road as his assistant taking photographs of the patients he is about to lobotomize.
For a decade referred to as “The Fabulous 50s” it’s hard to find any glamour in Alverson’s slice of American life as Wally and Andy traverse the scenic countryside going from one psychiatric facility to the next. Andy begins to feel empathy for Wally’s patients who are given shock treatment as anesthesia before receiving the ice pick lobotomy. Alverson spares the audience from any graphic visuals by focusing on the preop and postop moments.
At this juncture in time, Wally has become a dinosaur in the treatment of mental illness with the rise of psychotropic drugs. With fewer procedures to do, the two men spend their downtime drinking cocktails and hanging out in bowling alleys where Wally dances with strange women while the sexually repressed Andy wallows in his misery.
The film’s atmosphere falls somewhere between David Lynch and Yorgos Lanthimos punctuated by Daniel Lopatin’s eclectic score and Joanna Brouk’s brooding instrumentals. Goldblum’s portrayal is also reminiscent of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master.”
Events take a turn for the bizarre when French actor Denis Lavant (“Holy Motors”) enters the story as a mystic healer named Jack who wants to have his daughter Susan (Hannah Gross) lobotomized. He reaches out to Wally who agrees to perform the procedure at Jack’s cabin where Andy begins to develop feelings for Susan. Lavant delivers a fiery performance as he goes on a drunken tirade as an emotionless Andy looks on.
This is the second collaboration for Alverson and Sheridan who appeared in the director’s 2015 film “Entertainment.” For all its idiosyncrasies “The Mountain” is the most conventional of Alverson’s films. The audience remains spellbound by the downtempo performances of ghastly duo Goldblum and Sheridan who are fascinating to watch.
(3 ½ stars)
Now showing in Austin at the Regal Arbor 8