Distributors are smart to emphasize the presence of Jeff Goldblum in The Mountain. In this somber, 1950s-set drama—the fifth feature from Spokane-born director Rick Alverson—Goldblum plays a lobotomist struggling to keep his career going as the procedure falls out of favor. While The Mountain possesses an oppressive elegance, there's little to appeal to a mainstream audience apart from his performance as a very ordinary ghoul: a dyspeptic, soft-spoken intellectual whose rumpled charm dissolves virtually every night into drunken lust and self-pity. As Dr. Wallace Fiennes, based on the real-life psychiatrist Walter Freeman, Goldblum tamps down the silver-foxy mischief of his media persona to portray the embitterment of an irrelevant male.
Fiennes isn't actually the main character in the film. The Mountain follows Andy (Tye Sheridan), a practically inert young man who's lost his mother to the asylum and his father (Udo Kier) to a sudden death. Andy agrees to accompany Fiennes, his mother's disgraced former doctor, on a road trip to different mental institutions where the lobotomist can still practice his trade. Nearly silent and perpetually dour, passed from father figure to father figure without protest, Andy is a mystery—a fact that speaks to Sheridan's skill, since without the suppressed hurt and curiosity behind his hangdog face, his character would be a mere cipher.
The film tickles your hopes for some release, some refreshing breath of rebellion, by introducing an assertive young woman (Hannah Gross) who captures Andy's attention. But the dominant presence in the last act of the film is yet another seedy patriarch, Jack, embodied by an even-more-bizarre-than-usual Denis Lavant—who, like Kier, is a favorite of European avant-garde directors. (You'd think that seeing Lavant caper madly with his tongue out and howl in a slurry of French and English about semiotics and genitals would let some metaphorical air into the room, but somehow it doesn't.)
It's no accident that The Mountain pits dynamic, internationally respected character actors against a static protagonist. In an interview with the Portland Mercury, Alverson calls Andy "inaccessible... a blank slate where the audience's avatar for experience encounters the conditions of the world." This world, as depicted by Alverson, is still ruled by exhausted tyrants who nurse their own eccentricities yet destroy any attempt at individuality in their children. It's an impressively bleak vision of male domination.
But The Mountain is so keen on flouting the narrative expectations of an active hero that, once Goldblum leaves the picture, it results in a dead-end atmosphere. This is the kind of movie where every line of dialogue is cushioned with several seconds of silence, and questions mostly dangle unanswered in airless rooms. In that Mercury interview, Alverson calls his work "an anti-narrative film asking to be welcomed in the narrative commercial marketplace." The very frustration of the viewing experience seems to sharpen the critique of our culture's soul-stunting Big Daddies. But when the youth are depicted as lifeless from the start, do we really get a sense of what we're losing?