“The Mountain” Is Rick Alverson’s Latest Tragedy About Unfunny People

The filmmaker discusses father figures, the nuclear family, and the contradictions of the American utopia as they relate to his new feature.

Although Rick Alverson’s last two films dealt with very different subject matter, The Comedy and Entertainment were both experiments in objectively telling the tragic stories of painfully unfunny people. The former featured Tim Heidecker as an aging Williamsburg trust fund kid too numbed by irony and cheap beer to understand that he’s outgrown his high school sense of humor, and the latter starred Gregg Turkington as a grotesque Tony Clifton knockoff who matches Heidecker’s immature jokes. So how does Alverson’s latest film, a coming of age story about a newly fatherless twentysomething taking a job as a photographer of mental patients in post–World War II America, fit in with this line of thinking?

You don’t think The Mountain is a tragedy about unfunny people?” jokes Alverson. But he has a point here: though his characters aren’t trying to be funny this time, the movie seems to exist in the same comic vacuum—there is no comedy in this universe, even if the universe itself is inherently funny. There’s something subliminally humorous about this 1950s-set story of a young introvert’s successive relationships to three grossly incompetent father figures: the first his biological father, a strict patriarch with a feminine passion for figure skating and a jarringly un-American accent; the second his new employer Dr. Fiennes, an alcoholic womanizer who can’t buy a woman a drink without getting sidetracked by another; and the third the father of a patient, an alcoholic Frenchman who’s as erratically animated as the doctor is urbane. “I think The Mountain has enough fissures in it—and it falls apart in enough engineered ways—to give it an edge,” he says.

It helps that the film seems to exist in Joe Pera’s corner of Yorgos Lanthimos’ dysphoric universe. Tye Sheridan’s soft-spoken Andy feels like an expat of Pera’s okie-doke Upper Peninsula community, while the muted colors and bizarrely comic physicality of Denis Lavant’s Jack (that’s the alcoholic Frenchman) feel tied to the rewritten facts of life characteristic of Lanthimos’ films. “I’m always keenly aware of the fact that in America, the utopian idea of the nuclear family is simultaneously revered and completely destroyed in a way unlike any other place in the world,” Alverson notes of the contradictions the film is steeped in. “The community is almost like the Western expansion or something—how we all leave our home, how we all increasingly don’t know our neighbors. It’s completely unmoored, there’s no connectivity to history and location and family.” 

In addition to borrowing imperceptible comic elements from its two predecessors, The Mountain also matches Alverson’s earlier films’ unique Americanism—specifically the dysfunction of a broken home at the hands of a distant father. He sounds genuinely surprised when I point out that a functional nuclear family has yet to be the subject for one of his films (“I haven’t done that yet!?”), though the idea of writing such a screenplay excites him. “I think a lot of my movies are about the aftermath of a dissolved nuclear family, and it’s all about the idealized return to those components,” he posits, though his characters never quite seem to find a suitable surrogate in emotionless fraternity or mutual mental illness. A Woman Under the Influence is one of my favorite movies. I would say I pick it up from there and make it looser and more frightening,” he laughs. 

A Woman Under the Influence is one of my favorite movies. I would say I pick it up from there and make it looser and more frightening.”

The intergenerational tension of The Mountain, in particular, feels best matched by the relationship between Daniel Plainview and his son in There Will Be Blood. The majority of the film consists of Andy’s professional—and through surrogacy, familial—relationship to Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Fiennes, a character based on real-life lobotomist Dr. Walter Freeman, who we meet at the rainy estate sale immediately following the death of Andy’s father. “I’m sorry about your dad,” one of the film’s few female characters outside of a mental health facility tells Andy as Fiennes ambles over, sounding a bit less sympathetic: “Too bad about the rain.” In spite of the film’s period-piece commitment to an idyllic setting, its relationships feel painfully modern.

“It was very important that that sort of comfortable, fantastical identity of America was still very much intact before the war,” Alverson explains. “You’re kind of seeing the echo of it.” For example, “Home on the Range” plays on the TV Andy’s father watches at the beginning of the film before the nostalgic vision of hominess tied to a specific period deteriorates into drab, timeless asylums. “Even in it’s artificiality, something like Mad Men that’s so limited in its ghostly scope of referencing a time [interests me],” he continues. “I walk outside on the street and I see people and I can’t differentiate it from the 1990s, regardless of demographic.” 

In the same way the film’s superficial dedication to its setting is corrupted by an abstract sensation of relating to othered individuals like the mentally ill, the biographical account of Dr. Fiennes is overpowered by autobiographical information about its filmmaker—from a childhood spent in skating rinks to the aforementioned alienating sensation. “The room that Andy steps into in the first act of the film is almost a literal reconstruction of an event that happened to me when I was young in the basement of an ice rink,” Alverson recounts of a scene where Andy encounters a couple making out, opting to detail the film’s literal autobiography instead of any subtext. “Besides stealing from the biography of Dr. Freeman, and some of the architecture of his life, the movie’s foundation steals a lot of different historical information from a structural perspective, as opposed to the characters’ stories.” 

This foundation, as implied earlier, is loosely divided into three acts, each spotlighting a different male presence in Andy’s life. “It’s kind of separated into body, mind, and spirit, which I get a kick out of—from sports to academian fetish to the spiritual, acrobatic Lavant chapter. I wanted it to be book-ended by the two immigrants—one could be a little outside of the norms in so far as the population of French immigrants on the West Coast in this century.” See: Lavant’s prolonged, characteristically show-stopping scenes. “I definitely was interested in meditating on these ambitious male characters, that you can see written on their faces and bodies the ramifications of delivering on the dream of the West Coast of America in the mid-century. It should be a kind of utopia, and for that to be evident that it wasn’t found.”

“Nobody wanted to touch the film because of what they perceived as its problems, which were my interests.”

The film feels like it couldn’t exist without such quintessential performances from Lavant and Goldblum—as well as Udo Kier, who plays Andy’s father in his brief screen time—but Alverson insists this wasn’t the case. “When the film was written, I was the only person attached to it. Before we found the brave folks at VICE Studios to come on, nobody wanted to touch the film because of what they perceived as its problems, which were my interests,” he laughs again. In the same way his previous films’ roles felt written for his comedian friends he hired to play them, it’s surprising to learn how distant the prospect of landing such legendary leads was when the movie was written. “The film went through a long gestation period and a lot of rewrites,” Alverson admits.“These things inevitably accrue and change, and I think it’s maybe most interesting when the film becomes something different—as it should—from the blueprint of something that was conceived years ago. That’s consistent with discovering the film and how it would function with Goldblum and Lavant as anchors.” 

The final piece of the puzzle—and among the most important—was the filmmaker’s collaboration with Daniel Lopatin (f.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never) and Robert Donne, the former revered for the mood he crafted on the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time and the latter reuniting with Alverson after the anxiety-inducing ambiance he co-created for Entertainment. “Me and Daniel worked with some augmentations of source materials existing largely of Joanna Brouk, who was a new age floutist in the late ’70s,” he explains, himself a musician. “Me and Bob found some source material from analog synth [from the era]. I placed and edited those into the larger score.”

Taken as a whole, the tragic elements are as subliminally ingrained in The Mountain’s narrative as its comedy, emerging only through the music, Lorenzo Hagerman’s pallid cinematography, and (save for a few unexpected bursts of energy) the cast’s emotionless countenances. It’s hilarious in the same way Entertainment is hilarious—it’s the story of broken men doing what they can to survive in a broken culture within a universe where combovers that greasy are entirely plausible. FL

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