There’s something about Tye Sheridan. Adopted early on by indie and/or iconoclastic filmmakers like Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life), Jeff Nichols (Mud) and David Gordon Green (Joe), he played fresh-faced innocents on the cusp of receiving wisdom or being irrevocably warped. Spielberg gave him a shot at leading-man heroics with Ready Player One; the X-Men movies gave him a chance at steady franchise superheroics by casting him as Baby Cyclops. His specialty seemed to be passivity. He didn’t look like your typical assembly-line CW hunk, though he did look similar to a few other young up-and-comers; moviegoers could not be blamed if they found themselves occasionally wondering if they were watching Sheridan, Barry Keoghan, Alden Ehreneich, Dane DeHaan or Kodi Smit-McPhee in a given role.
But when Sheridan shows up in The Mountain, writer-director Rick Alverson’s latest excursion into the minefield known as the male psyche, it suddenly seems as if you’re seeing him for the very first time. The heavy-lidded eyes, the lush-lipped handsomeness, the wary sideways glances and Actor’s Studio sensitivity — there are moments when you’d think the second coming of Brando or Monty Clift just walked into the shot. It helps that he’s decked out in a 1950s uniform of checkered flannels and wool slacks that those moody Method movie stars would have worn; Alverson’s story of a young man taken under the wing of a doctor (Jeff Goldblum) is set right at the moment when the Eisenhower era’s uneasiness is approaching full boil. (Huge kudos to cinematographer Lorenzo Hagerman, production designer Jacqueline Abrahams and costume designer Elizabeth Warn, who conjure up the decade via an impeccable Midwestern drabness.) It’s as if the 22-year-old actor has finally found his niche in playing the emotionally confused men of yesteryear. Someone get him in a William Inge play stat.
Sheridan is best thing about this American Gothic parable of an ice-rink employee named Andy who watches his father (Udo Kier — yes, it’s that kind of film), a skating instructor, drop dead during a lesson. He soon meets Goldblum’s Dr. Wallace Fiennes, who once treated the lad’s mother at a sanitarium. His specialty, we find out, is lobotomies. Fiennes enlists Andy to take pictures of him performing the procedure. Practicing such “an imperfect science,” however, takes it toll on the clinician as they tour the nation’s institutions. As for his new ward, he seems interested in Susan (Hannah Gross), a patient who may be, per the parlance regarding the females of the species at the time, “hysterical” — or genuinely around the bend.
It’s hard to say what Alverson (The Comedy, Entertainment) is aiming for exactly with this flashback to gorgeously rendered social repression, though you’ll note that the white men in charge seem to be falling apart at the seems, women are told they’re nuts or literally shocked into submission, and the only way you can separate the lobotomized from your friends and neighbors are the bruises under the eyes. He’s not necessarily a filmmaker who traffics in kitsch or mere Lynchian weirdness for weirdness’ sake, but there are a lot of oddball touches: a Busby Berkley-style memorial, a hermaphrodite portrait on a wall plastered with va-va-voom girlie pics, Denis Levant dancing loose-limbed to vibraphones at a support group meeting. (A reminder: Adding the Beau Travail actor to any film will increase the quality of said project by 34%. These are the facts.) A generally disturbing vibe reigns at all time. When Jeff Goldblum is one of the least nutty elements in your movie, that’s saying something.
The actor has muted his usual um-ah-YES speech tics and other telltale Goldblumian gestures to a large degree, which works nicely against Sheridan’s revelatory performance. Their existential despair among the mental healthcare white-coat crowd plays and feeds off each other — it’s like discovering a Waiting for Godot production nestled in the middle of Titicut Follies. Still, the affect’s the thing here, and The Mountain constantly feels like it’s tuning up to hit a particular thrumming note of uncertainty. When you arrive at the film’s final destination, complete with ironic music cue over the credits, there is the notion that you have been methodically unsettled. Things fell apart in Norman Rockwell’s U.S. of A. back then. They keep falling apart to scale now.