The Mountain Between Us

THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US (2017) is to date the biggest Hollywoood production from Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad (RANA’S WEDDING, OMAR). Some reported it as his English language debut, but of course we know that was actually the Jeffrey Dean Morgan DTV action movie THE COURIER. This one is a little more respectable and was given a decent release, opening against BLADE RUNNER 2049 and doing okay-ish, despite pretty negative reviews.

Based on a 2011 novel by Charles Martin, it’s a survival movie with most of its runtime spent with just two actors. Daredevil conflict zone photojournalist Alex Martin (Kate Winslet, TRIPLE 9) and Baltimore-by-way-of-London brain surgeon Dr. Ben Bass (Idris Elba, PROM NIGHT) don’t know each other until their flight is cancelled by a storm, stranding them both at an airport in Salt Lake City. Alex is intent on getting home in time for her wedding, and she overhears Ben saying he needs to get home for a surgery, so she convinces him to go in with her to charter a small plane to another airport to catch a different flight.

We know they’re taking a big risk taking a small plane in this weather, but that turns out to be beside the point when their pilot Walter (Beau Bridges, THE WIZARD, MAX PAYNE) has a stroke and they crash on a snowy mountain. It’s a little hard to buy that they survive, of course, but the sequence is very effective, with about a four minute uninterrupted shot starting with them getting to know each other, Walter unnnervingly turning around to talk to them, they strap in after some turbulence, then Walter starts freezing up, Ben figures out what’s wrong, tries to attend to him, they hit something, the tail of the plane rips off and a bunch of stuff flies out, the camera spins back around and they belt themselves in again as we watch the plane hit the mountain and slide in the snow through the windows behind them.

I like how Alex says, “The dog! The dog!,” worried that Walter’s canine companion is going to fall out. He’s fine, but that’s her first instinct, is to worry about the dog.

Ben wakes up first. He finds Walter dead and Alex unconscious. He stays in the plane for shelter, makes a small fire for warmth, binds a compound fracture on Alex’s leg, feeds her snow to keep her hydrated, but she doesn’t come to for three days. This makes for some good visual storytelling and problem solving since Ben has no one to talk to as he assesses the situation, figures out what resources they have still in the plane, including some snacks, a lighter, a first aid kid, a flaregun, a tarp that he uses to drag Walter’s body out and bury him (the dog watching).

They don’t panic right away. They just strategize about how long they can last with the amount of food they have, and what chances there are for someone to come looking for them. They didn’t tell anyone about chartering the plane. The beacon fell off with the tail. Ben doesn’t have anyone waiting for him at home. But Alex does. She wants to try to get down the mountain, but Ben doesn’t think she can make it and also believes staying with the plane will give them a higher likelihood of being found.

It’s an inherently captivating scenario, especially when you put these two really strong and appealing actors into it. And they have some funny things to say without being too flippant about their situation. It’s also a well made movie, shot in real snowy locations. There are some times when it does get pretty silly, though. The first part that was a little too much for me is when a terrifying moment of Ben sliding down a slope and almost over a cliff happens at the same time Alex and the dog are being attacked by a fuckin cougar! Also those events both come right on the tail of Alex pushing play on Ben’s voice recorder and hearing a message from his wife to conveniently explain some of his mysterious backstory. But oh well, on their own the fall and the attack are both really intense sequences and I can’t complain about a mountain survival movie having a scary beast encounter. I’m not an ingrate.

But later there will be another disaster followed by the good doctor having to MacGyver a makeshift IV drip. And well before that they’ll lay it on a little too thick about Ben being uptight and risk averse and Alex being reckless and impulsive. You see? They’re opposites! An odd couple! On the positive side Elba and Winslet are so good they really sell the argument they have about it, and really the reason it sticks out so much is that most of the movie doesn’t spell things out too much. Like, Alex doesn’t say anything after he tells her off, she just gets up early and leaves with the dog.

By the time he’s decided to go after her and catches up with her they both kinda know it was a terrible idea to leave the plane, but it’s too late to turn back so they try to work together to make it work. Alex sees a reflection in the distance for a second, they’re not sure it’s anything, but at least they have something to aim for.

By the way, we see an invitation for the wedding with the date December 29th, which might mean Alex left her fiance alone on Christmas to do a photo essay on skinheads for The Guardian? (That’s what she tells Ben she was doing.) And also there was a Salt Lake City medical conference between Christmas and New Year’s Day? What the fuck? But more importantly it means THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US joins PROMETHEUS in the category of Idris Elba movies that incidentally set around the holidays.

The movie takes an arguably crazy turn when it starts to become a romance. I don’t entirely buy that they find a little cabin in the middle of nowhere, but honestly I like that they eventually break down and (SPOILER) decide to fuck. It makes perfect sense to me. They kinda think they’re not gonna survive, they’ve been through so much together, and if you were two people who looked like Idris Elba and Kate Winslet you would do it too. Admittedly the scene is pretty corny, with its flashbacks to earlier scenes of sexual tension and caring for each other – unneeded justification in my estimation. Anyway, it would be funny if the owner of the cabin showed up right then.

I like that they start acting like a couple in other ways. There’s this part where she’s worried about the dog having run off, he says he’s fine, she doesn’t say anything more but he looks at her face, then goes to look for the dog.

I was surprised how much of the movie was left when they (SPOILER) make it to safety. I think it’s better for it, though. We get to see them struggle to return to the real world, not just because his hand injuries and her very reasonable fear of flying force them to change occupations, but because they sort of became different people up there and nobody else could ever understand it.

This is also where it fully commits to being a romance by making Alex’s fiance Mark (Dermot Mulroney, SUNSET) not evil but instantly hatable for the oddly blasé way he greets Ben in the hospital, even while saying, “Alex tells me you saved her life.” He doesn’t get to deliver what my wife calls “the concession speech,” where he would tell Ben “she doesn’t love me, she loves you” and get out of the way, but he’s there long enough to soak up all of our hatred as he seems more annoyed than concerned about how miserable and distant she is after her ordeal.

I found the melodrama of the final moments laughable, which is interesting because Abu-Assad’s Palestinian movies have plenty of romance without taking it there. So I wonder if his choice of tone here is his idea of what you’re supposed to do in a Hollywood movie? I don’t know, but I forgive it, and overall approve of where the story goes. They could’ve just made it home and then cut to some text about how happily ever after they lived and whether or not they kept in touch. Instead it follows through with the audience’s attachment to these characters and the story’s theme of love being the only way to survive in the face of a hopeless situation. Which, come to think of it, is one of the only parallels I’d draw to RANA’S WEDDING. But it’s a substantive one.

In an interview with the Arab-focused independent online magazine Jadaliyaa Abu-Assad noted that all of his movies “are about two normal people who get caught in an extreme situation. This setting allows for an exploration of values and vision, and allows the audience to question what they already know.”

For this one he has an Australian cinematographer, Mandy Walker (JANE GOT A GUN, HIDDEN FIGURES, ELVIS). His editor, Lee Percy, got his start on motherfuckin SHOGUN ASSASSIN! He also did RE-ANIMATOR, FROM BEYOND, DOLLS, BLUE STEEL, SINGLE WHITE FEMALE, KISS OF DEATH, 54, and MARIA FULL OF GRACE. Legend. This also has production designer Patrice Vermette, who did the Denis Villeneuve movies PRISONERS, ENEMY, SICARIO, ARRIVAL, DUNE and DUNE’S REVENGE.

I’ve ascertained that in the novel Ben is the one who chartered the plane – a small but kind of interesting gender flip here. And Alex (named Ashley in the book) is a writer instead of a photographer – seems like a good change for a visual medium (plus they get to use her telephoto lens for surveying). The movie was under development for several years, originally for Mexican director Gerardo Naranjo (MISS BALA), with a screenplay by former Richard Donner assistant and producer J. Mills Goodloe, rewritten by Scott Frank (OUT OF SIGHT) and then by Chris Weitz (NUTTY PROFESSOR II: THE KLUMPS, ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY), though only Goodloe and Weitz received credit. The cast changed a few times – Ben was almost Michael Fassbender or Charlie Hunnam, and Alex was Margot Robbie or Rosamund Pike.

Obviously they ended up with a good pairing (the dog is also good), and though this is a mere seven years old it has almost none of the artificiality we would absolutely expect if it was made now. It’s clear that they’re filming in real snow, on top of a real mountain – research confirms that each morning they made their shooting schedule based on whether or not the weather would allow them to take a helicopter to the top of the mountain. An article I found on MarketWatch for some reason says the actors walked through knee deep snow every day and helped the crew carry the equipment. And according to USA Today, “Winslet insisted on really plunging into ice cold water at base camp to film her character falling through thin ice,” and that she did three takes of it. So maybe we shouldn’t have been so surprised that she was so big on holding her breath for underwater mocap in AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER.

Director Hany Abu-Assad on location with Winslet and Elba

To me this is weaker than the other Abu-Assad movies I’ve watched so far. It’s technically much better than THE COURIER, but that’s the type of movie where the goofy stuff kinda makes it more fun instead of poking holes in an otherwise solid structure. But it’s still pretty enjoyable and besides, in the Jadaliyaa interview he said it was a good learning experience to work in “the dominant cinema industry” and that “to me, putting the name of a Palestinian director on a Hollywood movie is an achievement.” And it’s true.

As to whether he’ll have his name on any more Hollywood movies remains to be seen. He didn’t make another movie until returning to Palestine four years later for HUDA’S SALON, and since then he’s only done an episode of a Saudi Arabian Netflix show. According to IMDb his next movie will be THE GOOD SPY, based on the Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Robert Ames written by Kai Bird, same guy that wrote the book OPPENHEIMER is based on. But you know how these things go. There was a time he was gonna direct a remake of SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE. You gotta wait and see if it comes to fruition or not.

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Other movies released in October, 2017: BLADE RUNNER 2049, THE FOREIGNER, HAPPY DEATH DAY, ONLY THE BRAVE, GEOSTORM, THE SNOWMAN. Maybe the reason most of these underperformed is there were too many pretty good/great/stupid movies to keep up with during one October when many of as are stuck on horror movies.


This entry was posted on Thursday, March 14th, 2024 at 11:07 am and is filed under Reviews, Romance, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

3 Responses to “The Mountain Between Us”

  1. I actually remember this movie. I haven’t seen it, but the poster and reading about it made me go “Oh right, there was that one”. There was actual advertising and people talked about it and then everybody forgot about it.

  2. Maybe I’m asking a bigger question here. But I feel like this movie asks what we want from Idris Elba as a movie star, and what we want from a male movie star in an era that finally acknowledges the female gaze.

    I do feel like this movie felt a little bit like a fantasy of sorts for women. You experience a near-death experience, and you’re stranded with Idris Elba, who, by the way, has all the survival skills you need. It would feel too pragmatic from a storytelling perspective to have both parties provide equal support, but it’s hard to avoid that Elba does everything to keep Winslet alive, and maybe a little extra — extra that graduates from “a little extra soup” to full on sex. And then of course, later on, it turns out Elba is the only one that understands you, and life is unimaginable without him. Sure, why not? We’ve been making this sort of movie from the man’s perspective for a long time, so this feels like a refreshing change of pace.

    But then, of course, it didn’t do much business. Elba is, by and large, a movie star, and yet no one really goes to his movies. His resume is littered with flops, even as our media machine tells us he is kind of a big deal. He’s attached himself to a few ensemble casts that don’t depend on his stardom, for better or for worse. But 2017 is a notable year for him. Strong work in “Mountain” and “Molly’s Game”, two movies roundly ignored, a meager supporting role in the MCU, and “The Dark Tower”, where he killed a potential franchise dead.

    “Mountain” seems like the best role for the guy. He has to be smart, capable, handsome, brooding, heroic. But I guess audiences didn’t want to see him like this? Which makes me wonder how audiences want to see him in the first place. Surely not as another action figure, like in “Hobbs And Shaw”. Maybe we’re not utilizing him correctly? I remember my sister in law being excited to spend two hours with Idris Elba when I took her out to a movie. That movie turned out to be “Three Thousand Years Of Longing”, which left her (and others) quizzical and vexed, even as it fetishized Elba’s nude physicality.

    Obviously he’s not the only leading man struggling with this today. But as far as leading men, sometimes I wonder if the next Tom Cruise, or Denzel or Kurt Russell is out there, and we just aren’t properly utilizing them.

  3. I don’t know why it took me 7 years to watch this but I just watched it and really enjoyed it. For those that don’t like it it (and their are some problems with it no doubt) I had to get this on Ebay and even that was an ex rental copy. The blu-ray is out of print. In regards to Idris Elba killing the (ill advised although they persist on keep trying to adapt a series of books that should be left on the page) Dark Tower movie. Idris Elba was the least of that movies problems. Blaine The Monorail would not play well in a film. Anyway my main criticism of the movie is the last scene. Although I didn’t mind it because I’m admittedly biased because I love both those actors but that’s a sweet ending. Just a little too much like bad romantic comedy. They did go through hell together though. I don’t know. I know it’s not a classic but I liked it.

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