“This is the human paradox of altitude: that it both exalts the individual mind and erases it,” Robert Macfarlane wrote in his book about mountaineering, Mountains of the Mind. “Those who travel to mountain tops are half in love with themselves, and half in love with oblivion.” With Jennifer Peedom’s love letter to mountains – aptly titled Mountain – she goes about proving Macfarlane’s words with a glimpse at the majesty of such a venture, and also the audacity of human arrogance. Like the altitude paradox that Macfarlane mentions, Mountain is wondrous in the moment, but the memory of the film can quickly be erased after the experience.
Shot in part on all seven continents, Mountain keeps its namesake at the forefront. There are no interviews, no location names given, and rarely do the climbers of the aforementioned mountains speak. Instead, Peedom shows the grandeur of these mountains through incredible footage, a score by the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and select passages by Macfarlane, narrated by Willem Dafoe. Names, places, and unnecessary information are all pushed aside for the peaks themselves to stand in the spotlight.
With cinematography by climber Renan Ozturk and several others, Mountain captures breathtaking footage that doesn’t even seem humanly possible. Mountain shows everything from the climbing and falling off a mountain, to skiing down and sleeping thousands of feet up from angles that are unbelievable. Even though Mountain shows antics as wild as causing a small avalanche for a snowboarder to speed away from, some of Mountain’s most harrowing footage comes from simply capturing people with seemingly no gear scaling the heights without a care in the world. As Mountain explains and shows through its footage, climbing is an adrenaline rush unlike any other, one that draws its fans back over and over, seeking ever growing stakes.
While the score by the Australian Chamber Orchestra does magnify the gargantuan nature of these ridges, Dafoe’s reading of Macfarlane’s words can often get too ostentatious. For example, at one point Dafoe states, “Because the mountains we climb are not made only of rock and ice, but also dreams and desire, the mountains we climb are mountains of the mind.” It’s not that this isn’t true; it’s just that these additions usually come off more like stoner logic than grandiose truths.
Mountain’s lack of anything to tie the audience to any specific climbers or locales is the right choice for a film that wants to keep the mountains in the limelight, and yet it can make the film still feel forgettable. There’s little to invest the viewer into these other people’s experiences, and without anything to grab onto, it’s hard for the film to take hold after viewing.
Mountain is a stunning achievement of pinnacles and elevation that can be awe-inspiring one moment and horrific the next. Mountain makes its climbers and their goals heroic in their attempts, and frankly insane for even considering climbing such heights, both of which are completely valid and correct. While the climbs and the footage captured is astonishing, the undertaking of trying to match that greatness through some odd narration choices can make Mountain laughable at times. Mountain might not stick long after its over, but the climb is well worth the experience in the moment.