Local director brings festival film to debut at historic Byrd

“The Mountain” had its Richmond debut Sunday at the historic Byrd Theatre in Carytown. Photo by Alessandro Latour

Andrew Ringle, Managing Editor

Richmond filmmaker Rick Alverson’s latest film, “The Mountain,” had its local debut in a special event at the Byrd Theatre on Sunday.

Film studies professor Oliver Speck led an open discussion with the director after the screening.

 “It’s a pleasure to be home,” Alverson said before the screening started. “We premiered this at Venice Film Festival last August. And then Kino Lorber, the notorious arthouse distributor, picked it up. We opened in New York and LA last month, and it’s been playing in town since. But it’s nice to be home.”

Director Rick Alverson, who lives in Church Hill, answered questions in an open discussion after the screening. Photo by Alessandro Latour

Set sometime in the 1950s, “The Mountain” captures the stark reality of a decade typically glorified in Hollywood fantasies. The film portrays the final moments of America’s brief obsession with the lobotomy — a procedure that severed connections in the brain — which lost legitimacy after new technology facilitated safer, less invasive psychological treatments.

The film’s young protagonist, Andy, works at his father’s ice skating rink while grappling with the institutionalization, lobotomization and death of his mother. After his coldhearted father abruptly suffers a fatal heart attack, Andy falls under the wing of Wallace Fiennes, a family friend and the lobotomist who operated on his mother. 

Andy travels with Fiennes to a number of institutions, photographing the surgeon’s patients before and after the lobotomies are performed. Spending time in the asylums brings out the worst in the duo; Andy slowly loses his mind as he desperately tries to connect with the patients, and Fiennes struggles with alcoholism between his growingly scarce operations.

Fiennes is loosely based on Walter Freeman, a real and controversial surgeon from the decade who once performed a lobotomy on Rosemary Kennedy, the sister of President John F. Kennedy.

The film boasts surprising chemistry between its two frontrunners, Jeff Goldblum as Fiennes and Tye Sheridan as Andy. The former, a film veteran of “Jurassic Park” and “Independence Day” fame, reflects the brightest aspects of the latter, a rising star who received international attention after his role in “Ready Player One.”

Goldblum and Sheridan share a connection to those Spielberg summertime blockbusters; one might argue the director is at least partly responsible for launching the two actors to stardom across two generations. But Alverson’s “The Mountain” demands a performance far different than what the actors have needed to produce in the past.

Alverson said much of the direction in his latest film was physical rather than verbal, meaning the actors needed to use their bodies to convey scenes.

“It’s a ton of physical direction,” Alverson said. “There are some actors who hate it, but I tend to work with people who are open to that sort of thing. There’s a lot of, like, ‘move three quarters of an inch to the left’ and ‘part your lips’ kind of direction.”

French actor Denis Lavant brings this physical direction to the forefront in a scene in which his character, Jack, is visibly intoxicated. He speaks in a mix of English and French, spitting and stumbling through his living room while he rants incoherently about the meaning of life. This scene from Lavant was one of the strongest in the film, and it gives form to Alverson’s efforts as a spontaneous director.

The film is shot in a nearly square aspect ratio, hearkening back to the popular television format in the 1950s. Alverson said he chose it to imitate the falseness of mid-20th century media by using the black obstructions on the sides of the screen to guide visual elements in the film’s content.

“Stylistically I’ve become more obstinate,” Alverson said. “To me it’s a more inviting film, in other ways it’s like you’re sort of bludgeoned with it. I’m reacting to everything that says make easier films, make films that are more inviting, that are more enjoyable.”

Alverson said there’s clout in the film industry for making those “easier films,” but that there needs to be a migration from the “aspirational Spielberg space” and the “titillating Tarantino space” of Hollywood moviemaking.

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