Warning: This post contains spoilers.
The Mountain Between Us, a man-versus-the-elements tale that opened in wide release last weekend, becomes provocative only in its final quarter, when it considers how individuals resume normal life after undergoing a traumatic experience. Whereas most films about people stranded in the wilderness end when the protagonists die or find safety, Mountain continues for almost half an hour after the heroes (played by Kate Winslet and Idris Elba) return to civilization. In this section of the film, the principal characters discover that they aren’t as contented in their lives as they’d imagined before suffering their ordeal. Both quit their jobs and pursue work that brings them into closer contact with others; they also pine for each other from afar, as they fell in love while struggling together to survive in the Rocky Mountains. I was surprised by the film’s shift from adventure story to romantic melodrama, and yet the turn feels natural. Everyday life more often resembles a melodrama than an adventure story, and for better or for worse, everyday life is what most of us are stuck with.
The concluding passages of Mountain recall Anton Chekhov’s famous saying that any idiot can handle a tragedy, but that living from day to day takes courage. That’s not to say that the film’s protagonists are idiots—Elba’s character is a neurosurgeon and Winslet’s is a successful photojournalist—but that everyday life hinges on complicated moral decisions that make life-or-death struggle seem straightforward by comparison. The question of what brings us fulfillment is a tricky one, and the filmmakers honor that trickiness. Having come close to death, the characters become more sensitive to the ways in which their existence might be lacking; the filmmakers present them as frustrated with their professional and social lives, clearly desiring something more. This development feels more plausible than if the characters simply reestablished their routines in perfect contentment. It also draws attention to a challenge to which many viewers can relate.
The opening scenes of the film hints at the direction its final act will take. Elba and Winslet meet at an Idaho airport, both eager to get back to the east coast. (Winslet is getting married the next day, while Elba has to perform an important surgery.) Most flights have been canceled due to an impending storm, but they find a kindly pilot who agrees to fly them to Denver (where they can transfer to other flights) in his small plane. Beau Bridges plays the pilot, and he makes a strong impression in his few scenes. He describes serving as a pilot in the Vietnam war and recalls meeting, and failing to marry, the love of his life. With little dialogue, the character conveys the sense of a long life marked by triumphs and regrets, with the latter overshadowing the former. The pilot suffers a stroke while discussing his significant romance, crashing the plane into the mountains. There’s a poignant tinge to the scene, as one realizes the character will meet death having failed to establish a lasting love.
What follows is a moderately suspenseful account of Winslet and Elba’s survival in a forbidding terrain. If the film fails to generate tension on the level of Robert Aldrich’s The Flight of the Phoenix or Joe Carnahan’s The Grey (to cite two of my favorite films about people struggling to survive after a plane crash), that may be because the characters seem so well prepared to meet the challenge. Elba’s character is a doctor, and he’s able to treat Winslet’s wounded leg with little difficulty; he’s also quick to construct a viable shelter from the destroyed airplane. Winslet may not have his survival skills, but she shows resolve in staying alive, demonstrating a fortitude that others might lack. As such, one doesn’t question whether the characters will survive their ordeal, but rather how they will endure it. Even Winslet’s encounter with a cougar (which sniffs around the plane when Elba leaves her alone) fails to convey a strong sense of fear. She confronts the animal bravely, killing it with a flare gun; the cougar provides the characters with food for several days.
Once it establishes that the situation isn’t so dire, The Mountain Between Us subtly shifts its focus from the characters’ survival to their budding romantic chemistry. The leads play this development nicely, showing how their interdependence leads to mutual interest in one another. The characters become physically intimate early on—they need to be, in order to generate the necessary body heat to help stay alive—and so their growing attraction is conveyed primarily through dialogue. Director Hany Abu-Assad uses close-ups sparingly and wisely, employing them to depict internal change. (These shots also stand in effective contrast to the panoramic shots of mountains that define much of the film’s mise-en-scene.) As Winslet and Elba trek across the mountains in search of civilization, they interact more and more like a romantic couple.
Would these two have fallen in love if they’d met under different circumstances? Or does their ordeal change them so thoroughly that it renders this question irrelevant? I wish The Mountain Between Us were longer so that it could explore these issues, showing how the characters grow together after they reunite. The film ends abruptly, with Winslet and Elba deciding they need one another and joining in a cathartic embrace. This ending leaves viewers to imagine what their relationship will be like. I’m skeptical as to whether it will succeed. The characters bond out of proximity and physical need, but it’s open-ended as to whether they’ll satisfy each other’s emotional needs as they navigate the difficulties of normal life.