Few people make movies like Rick Alverson, a director who, in such ironically titled films as “The Comedy” and “Entertainment,” pushes the definition of enjoyment up to — and sometimes past — the breaking point, all the while crafting works of undeniable intelligence (and sometimes even breathtaking beauty). He does the same thing in his newest film, “The Mountain,” a 1950s-set story about a traveling lobotomist (Jeff Goldblum) and his photographer assistant (Tye Sheridan).
Gliding back and forth between the polarities of off-putting and gorgeous — in a coldly formal, otherworldly way — Alverson tells an open-ended story assembled from moments of both awkwardness and stunning grace, more like a slide show of haunting still images than a conventional motion picture.
It is both frustrating and rewarding, if you know where to look.
Sheridan’s Andy, an expressionless Zamboni operator at the ice rink where his father (Udo Kier) teaches figure skating, shuffles through life limp-limbed and with half-lidded eyes, like one who has been lobotomized himself (a fate, we learn early on, that his absent mother has already suffered herself). When Andy’s father dies suddenly, Andy is visited by Goldblum’s Dr. Wallace Fiennes, an itinerant practitioner of the controversial brain surgery that, at this point in history, had begun to fall into disfavor.
Wally, as he’s known, is like a roving pitchman of patent medicine. “I was one of your mother’s physicians,” he tells Andy, in a wildly imprecise understatement. His signature procedure, performed with something like an ice pick that is hammered into a corner of the eye socket and then manipulated to sever brain connections, is not shown in graphic detail, but its effects — which often leave the patent zombified (and sometimes dead) — are gruesomely hinted at.
Much of this odd little road movie follows Wally and Andy as they travel by car from hospital to hospital, and from motel to motel, delivering Wally’s services to psychiatric patients who, in many cases, the medical establishment just doesn’t know what to do with otherwise.
But this is not a story about the evils of lobotomy, except as a means to discuss something else. As with “The Comedy,” Alverson is fascinated with the theme of human connection and alienation. When the protagonists meet Jack (Denis Lavant), a father who requests Wally’s talents be applied to his daughter Susan (Hannah Gross), a young woman who seems completely normal, “The Mountain” starts to finally sidle up to its true subject.
From one perspective, that is the theme of stifled individuality. As with “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” there’s a subtext here about how society represses eccentricity and creativity, with Andy — who begins, dangerously, to fall in love with Susan — representing that artistic spirit. (A spirit, the film suggests, that is all too easily crushed by those who don’t understand it.)
In a rambling, drunken speech by Jack — delivered in a mix of his native French and broken English, while standing in front of a painting of a mountain landscape — Jack tells Andy, “You look confused. What confuses you? Art? Art is a thought for which there is no other form in the whole wide world.”
That statement comes as close as anything to articulating “The Mountain’s” reason for being. It’s not so much a thesis as a way of admitting that there is no point in trying to express a thesis: “The Mountain” is what it is, and any attempt to recapitulate its meaning in some other form (like — ahem — a movie review) is a fool’s errand.
With that in mind, it is probably best to set this thought down, and leave it with you: “The Mountain” is not for everyone, but it is, most emphatically, something else.
Unrated. Contains disturbing images, nudity, sexuality, strong language and smoking. 106 minutes.