by Philip Price
Israeli-born director Hany Abu-Assad makes no apologies for the type of movie he's made in “The Mountain Between Us.” There is no reason to, either. The film is a handsomely mounted, beautifully photographed, human drama about two people who become stranded with no documentation whatsoever about where they might be. This is a movie that totally accomplishes what it sets out to do, that completely embodies what it is meant to be, and on most levels you have to applaud a film for being as much. It's admirable that Abu-Assad, working from a screenplay by Chris Weitz (“About a Boy”) who adapted Charles Martin's 2010 novel of the same name, followed this desire to adapt the source material in the vein of this grand romantic adventure tale of old that so willingly commits to the type of movie it wants to be that we honestly don't see much of anymore. Is there room for criticism? Of course, but it's difficult to balance. The movie is inherently melodramatic and rather frail in its plotting in how it documents the passage of time (hint: poorly), but stars Kate Winslet and Idris Elba always look just the right amount of roughed up to still be attractive in that rugged sense that will surely make couples on a date night want to get lost in the wilderness together. All of that said, this isn't a great movie despite having several positive attributes-most being in the sweeping visuals-but when taken on the terms of the type of movie it is aiming to be and given “The Mountain Between Us” is essentially the most prestigious pile of dopey cheese one could ever create-it works for what it is. It does, it really does. Early in the film a plane flies overhead while Elba's character struggles to shoot off a flare. Winslet's character yells at the top of her lungs, but out of frustration Elba's Ben turns to her and tells her that they can't hear her. "I know they can't hear me! It's just what you do!" She replies. Watching “The Mountain Between Us” is kind of like that as well; even if you're intelligent enough to know the movie isn't a great movie you keep watching out of a need and/or want to feel something specific and have a certain kind of experience. “The Mountain Between Us” fills this kind of quota in spades.
So, brain surgeon Ben (Elba) is in a rush to get home from a medical conference for an emergency surgery on a 10-year old patient while journalist/photographer Alex (Winslet) is set to be married the next day. When they arrive at the airport though, both come to find out their flights have been cancelled due to an impending storm and that there are no other rental cars remaining. Given both are in something of a time crunch, Alex proposes the idea of chartering a small plane from Salt Lake City to Denver. Ben is up for it given his circumstances and somehow the two are ushered to what would seem to be the auto shop on the airport grounds (I guess?) where a pilot, Walter (Beau Bridges), agrees to take fly them to their destination for an additional cost-which, given they both have prestigious jobs (hah!) is no object. Walter, bringing along his dog that goes unnamed for the remainder of the film, always seemed to not be in the greatest of health and so it may come as no surprise (especially if you've seen the trailers) that things go south as does the plane. Upon finding out that they've both survived the crash, Ben and Alex find that they have landed on the top of a mountain and it's cold. Really cold. Beyond that, the conditions are brutal, the food is limited, and both have sustained injuries-Alex's a little more debilitating as it hinders her ability to move or walk or help out in any form or fashion. As stated before, there's not a record on earth that shows where they are and thus they are forced to figure out how to both survive as well as find some kind of civilization that might rescue them from their extreme circumstances. The hook of the story is the fact that, prior to getting on the plane together, Ben and Alex know nothing about one another and now all of a sudden have been thrown into this situation where they are experiencing these events and these conditions that bear their true spirit and will to survive in a fashion that connects them in this undeniable fashion. This idea that they might die together, but don't really no one another is relayed time and time again-essentially forcing this bond whether it would have existed outside of these circumstances or not. It's a fine enough premise if you're going for a love story on this kind of grand scale and Abu-Assad makes sure he can track the progression of the relationship well enough that viewers are never bored, but rather anxiously awaiting that moment the two give in to one another. This kind of anxiety mixed with the added tensions of the survival aspects that factor in threats from all sides whether it be from wild animals, lack of food and warmth, or other natural forces means there is plenty here to justify the price of a matinee ticket even if a movie such as “The Mountain Between Us” only ever stood the chance of being so good.
Watching these two characters run the entire gamut of emotions: the anger, the love, the desperation, and again-that hunger, leads to something that is inherently hopeful; that spirit of the human being and their will to survive that not all can speak to, but that most can appreciate. It is this kind of investment in the characters that would always be key to “The Mountain Between Us” success and for the most part this is accomplished rather effortlessly (or at least appears to be as much) despite the film starting out in something of a clunky fashion. Right off the bat we are made to understand the distinct differences in the characters our principal actors are playing as Winslet's Alex is the inquisitive journalist while Elba's Ben is the serious and rightfully nervous surgeon who prefers logic and precision over Alex's gut reactions that oftentimes seem reckless and selfish. Yes, we get it-the woman is the emotional one who's not afraid to admit she is scared while the alpha male feels the need to control every situation he finds himself in-proceeding to try and fix everything by following the rule book even when such rules may not apply. Whether this is due to the amount of depth (or lack thereof) that Martin provided in his original novel or is the result of a condensed narrative via Weitz's script the two personalities are introduced without a hint of subtlety whatsoever and forced on the audience to the point of absolute understanding prior to the plane crash so that we might be prepared for how things will shake out post-stranded on the top of a mountain. That said, director Abu-Assad and his Director of Photography, Mandy Walker (“Hidden Figures”), do indeed capture this sequence in a thrillingly single take that is quite intense as it doesn't allow the audience out of the confined area these characters are trapped in and are mostly powerless to do anything to avoid their inevitable fate. That said, Editor Lee Percy doesn't allow the audience to exist in this moment long enough to make us really endure it. Rather, it is over before we're squeezing the arm rests as tight as we should be. On top of that, within the first 15 minutes or so of the film there are several fades to black that make it seem as if there were no other options from the footage that was shot; that Abu-Assad had not really defined a language for his film, but rather shot for beauty and coverage rather than to capture a throughline tone. In many of the beautifully epic crane shots “The Mountain Between Us” features there seems no motivation for the way the camera moves other than the fact the landscapes are breathtaking, which they are, but this doesn't aid in the fact the film feels rather aimless until it is allowed to focus in on the survival dynamic between its two lead characters which is where the core investment on the part of the audience lies anyway.
For these reasons it was slightly shocking when it seemed the movie was going to split the two lead characters up about forty or so minutes in, but as the two are quickly reunited (no spoilers here because, c'mon...) and have by then made a crucial decision in terms of how to move forward in the fight for their survival it is here that the development of this aforementioned dynamic begins to genuinely evolve and thus we, the viewers, do naturally become more invested in what might happen. Much of this obviously has to do with the fact Abu-Assad has actors the caliber of Winslet and Elba keeping the emotional trajectory of the film afloat while propping the predictable story up with the aforementioned gorgeous landscapes. As far as the actors are concerned, both Winslet and Elba are able to communicate much of their jumbled emotions about what has happened, what is happening, and what may or may not become of them through facial expressions and unspoken intuitions. There are hints of a broken history between Ben and his wife as there are hints that this is a man who has become severely lonely including the fact he doesn't speak of the wife he's clarified he has. There is a moment, even, where I wondered if Ben might prefer being lost with Alex as opposed to what I imagined had to be a comfortable life in the civilized world or if Ben was simply so convinced the two of them were destined to die that he'd already given up hope. The way in which Winslet's Alex comes to balance this with her determination and simultaneous appreciation of what is happening is enviable and naturally leads to what anyone paying good money to see this movie in theaters wants to get out of this movie. That said, much like the plane crash sequence at the beginning of the film there is a scene near the end of the second act where Alex asks Ben to give her one percent of a song from his cell phone whose battery life is nearly up where Alex's personality is presented in the comfort this music, this art brings to the situation. But again, the shot doesn't linger, the scope isn't allowed to sink in, and the weight of the situation is cut out from under the audience by cutting to the next morning without warning. Nothing is allowed to sizzle here and unfortunately, these choices by Percy come back to undercut the relationship as a whole as this happens again in what is supposed to be a rather climactic emotional scene that ends up going nowhere; the emotional reveal never packing the intended wallop. And so, while Elba is actually pretty fantastic here-he carries so much baggage in his eyes-and Ramin Djawadi's score turns out to be one of the best/most surprising facets of the movie as a whole “The Mountain Between Us” is an admirable effort that accomplishes what it sets out to do in expert fashion even if that fashion is total mush.