Film

The Mountain Revisits the Dark History of Lobotomies in 1950s America

The movie superficially depicts the normal world of ’50s America but from a subtly disjointed point of view.

Tye Sheridan in The Mountain (courtesy Kino Lorber)

The lobotomy has taken on mythical qualities in American popular culture. For a time in the postwar period, the procedure — which in its best-known form involved inserting a pick-like instrument called an orbitoclast into the brain’s frontal lobe via the eye sockets — was used as a treatment for mental illnesses of all stripes. In the early 1950s, its supposed benefits were debunked, and it became widely known how many patients had been rendered shells of their former selves. Since then the lobotomy has loomed as a specter over any story about mental health, a horrific fate either threatening or awaiting characters in the likes of The Bell Jar, The Prisoner, The X-Files, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Shutter Island. It is synonymous with the barbarism of the various dead ends littering medical history, of the casual callousness underlying the treatment of “crazy” individuals in the West.

What would it take, then, to make a lobotomy seem like it could bring blessed relief? The Mountain is the sort of movie to try this. It is an alienating film about alienation. The shots are still and long, dialogue is sparse, movement is usually either slow or even in slow motion. The first shot is in this style, focusing on an ice skater spiraling like she’s perched atop a music box. It sets the stage for the movie’s slightly unreal feeling, superficially depicting the normal world of ’50s America but from a subtly disjointed point of view. This is a film of muted tones — trees dead in autumn, pale bruises on paler skin, reds like dried blood, washed-out browns to match a cheap suit.

The opening sequence follows the young protagonist, Andy (Tye Sheridan), first going through the motions of his job clearing the ice at a skating rink where his father (Udo Kier) is an instructor, and then weathering the man’s weary, matter-of-fact verbal abuse. And then his father dies on the ice, like a punchline without any windup in the punch. The Mountain is unpleasant without ever being too forward about it, the way director Rick Alverson’s previous films, such as The Comedy and Entertainment (both of which were titled very ironically) could be. Instead it persists at a low-key level of queasiness, in the same way that the characters let anxieties simmer and percolate without ever giving themselves or the audience the relief of a release.

From The Mountain (courtesy Kino Lorber)

Andy’s mother is absent; she was lobotomized some years back. We do not learn the details. The vast majority of lobotomies were performed on women, and the film reflects this without drawing explicit attention to it. In the same way that “hysteria” was once considered a valid medical diagnosis, any perceived “acting out” could become the justification for mental hobbling. Now Andy is bereft of purpose, and into this void comes the man who lobotomized his mother, Dr. Wallace Fiennes (Jeff Goldblum, giving his best performance in years, not eschewing his usual quirky persona but instead twisting it into something extraordinarily unsettling). He accompanies Fiennes as a photographer, having latched onto the paltry human connection he offers. They cross the Midwest toward a proto-New Age retreat in California, stopping in at various asylums to perform lobotomies. Fiennes is like a folkloric boogeyman, stalking from town to town brandishing hammers and orbitoclasts, with Andy his obedient herald. The youth continually sees himself in Fiennes’s patients, and is drawn to the apparent peace granted them by the procedure.

The popular imagination once twisted the ’50s into a fictional American Golden Age, with that view in turn deconstructed by artists ranging from Tim Burton to Todd Haynes to David Lynch. It is now more fashionable to subvert the once-stereotypical rosy idea of suburban conformity and Father Knows Best tranquility. Even so, The Mountain‘s vision of a DeLillo-like purgatory is startling in its starkness. Unlike so many other revisionist period pieces, or even contemporary films which critiqued the culture at large, there’s no baked-in atmosphere of midcentury sunniness which is then peeled back to reveal darkness beneath (racism, sexism, Cold War hysteria, or what have you). It’s all darkness. It is a modern-feeling film in the garb of the ’50s, the suggestion being that there is a dismal, timeless universalism in the murk of the myriad struggles that come with being off the way everyone else is — because of depression, grief, anxiety, and the more extreme maladies.

Sheridan and Jeff Goldblum in The Mountain (courtesy Kino Lorber)

Uneasy intimations about sexual abuse litter The Mountain. Andy’s father is seen to teach only girls figure skating, and his funeral features dozens of them performing a drone-like tribute dance. Eventually Andy and Fiennes cross paths with Jack (Denis Lavant), the leader of the Cali wellness center, who’s expecting a lobotomy for his daughter Susan (Hannah Gross) over unspecified ills. He insists on it even after the local hospital rejects hosting Fiennes to perform the surgery, having learned of its harmfulness. In Susan, Andy finds a mostly unspoken but deep kinship. They both seem to have been mostly buffeted about by the world rather than agents of their own fates. In the end, Andy takes initiative in the most disturbing way possible, purposefully setting himself on the path toward his own lobotomy as a twisted way to make himself like Susan and his mother.

The Mountain accumulates a sense of dread as it progresses, subtly fraying its own sense of reality as Andy’s mind deteriorates — or alternatively, as it dismisses the notion of much separation between those who are mentally “well” and not. The film does not state its horror, but puts it out there for you to notice it … or not. In one late sequence, Fiennes processes Andy as a patient, the two sitting on folding chairs in a stark little room. Forced perspective makes Goldblum loom over Sheridan, and after a few basic shot, reverse-shot back-and-forths, the viewer realizes that the room is not merely small but appears to have no doors. Once this clicks, it’s utterly terrifying. It is rare that a film so acutely captures the numbness of total estrangement from nearly everyone around you. Most ominously at all, within this headspace, it makes all too perfect sense to sever the parts of your sentience chaining you to the pain of living. In bringing the viewer to such a point, The Mountain is uniquely brutal. It offers little entertainment for many viewers, but for anyone who can recognize this kind of melancholy, it might be a dark catharsis.

The Mountain opens at the IFC Center (323 6th Ave) in New York and the Landmark Nuart (11272 Santa Monica Blvd) in Los Angeles on July 26, with a national expansion to follow.

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