Overview: Two strangers are thrown together in a dire life-or-death situation in this romance-meets-survival story. 20th Century Fox; 2017; Rated PG-13; 103 minutes.
In Peril but Out of Synch: The night before I went to see The Mountain Between Us, I caught the last fifteen minutes of the 1971 made-for-TV movie Duel on cable. It’s a guilty pleasure movie for me and I’ve seen it, in whole or in part, dozens of times. In a very literal interpretation, it’s a survival film, a man-against-machine test of wills, slightly cheesy and slightly formulaic. I bring it up because those 15 minutes of catching Duel on TV enthralled me in a way the entirety of this film failed to. And the bar was so low. I love survival movies, and sat down in my seat predisposed to love this one. Kate Winslet, Idris Elba, a dog that survives? What’s not to like?
Idris Elba’s character, Ben, is presented as a pragmatist, a surgeon who is polite if a bit aloof at first (Hey, he gets to be English here, at least). In contrast, Winslet’s Alex is all heart. A ragtag romantic, equally up for the adrenaline of shooting pictures in a war zone, or squeezing in a last minute assignment to shoot neo-Nazis in Idaho the day before her wedding. It’s this assignment that finds her and Elba, two strangers, teaming up to charter a flight ahead of a storm that, without the makeshift pairing, would mean Ben missing his surgery and Alex missing her ceremony. The stakes are high, therefore the plane must go down. While the two are strangers to one another at the pivotal first act point in the film, they’re also largely strangers to us. And that’s a problem, because it’s hard to invest much emotion into characters that are essentially performing in a set piece (even if it’s a beautiful one). The bulk of the film is heavily dependent on the relationship between the two, the dialogue they share, and the bond they forge. But all of this feels forced. In particular, Winslet’s character is a problem. I’m all for Complicated Women, but Alex is strident and charmless. Which, more power to her, but it’s hard to emotionally invest in a romantic heroine who is all hard edges and no vulnerability. Is this unfair? Maybe, but for the fact that Ben offers us that missing vulnerability. It’s kind of a pre-req to any kind of emotional intimacy. Without it, I have to wonder why I’m supposed to care, or—to put a finer point on it—why he is expected to.
Chew the Scenery: There are so many ham-fisted moments in the film that are achingly on the nose. Elba isn’t just a surgeon, he’s a brain surgeon. Get it? Because he values intellect over emotion. At one point, while two are traipsing through knee high snow, he’s even tasked with saying “The heart is just a muscle!” to Winslet, working the probing, hard-nosed journalist trope to the hilt.
Finally, a minor complaint, but Winslet’s American accent here is all over the place. You can hear the strain and the concentration in her delivery, which detracts from the performance. It sort of comes out as a flat and brusque Long Island staccato. It’s, in a word, strange.
But the film isn’t a complete loss. Once the romance between the two, as ill-conceived as it might be, starts to heat up, so too did my interest. If I can’t get a decent survival thrill from this, at least I got a modicum of a romantic one. Despite his character’s oft-noted pragmatism, Elba exudes warmth in his role and even setting his handsomeness aside for a moment, Ben character does seem like someone a heroine would fall for. He’s brave, conscientious, and just flawed enough to be relatable. And, OK, the more I think about it, the angrier I am that Winslet was given so little to work with here.
The most thrilling moments you’ll have seen briefly in the previews, but they do offer up a few minutes of good, old-fashioned fright. And the cinematography is gorgeous and expansive and somehow feels compelling throughout the film despite largely unchanging vistas. Unfortunately, all that beauty just can’t cover up this film’s flaws.
Overall: The Mountain Between Us suffers from a lack of character development that hobbles us in our attempts to care about these characters, and serves up a rare misstep for Winslet. It tries to do too much with too little, mimicking what would make for a great survival film but without the sincerity behind it. It’s a film equivalent of a smile that doesn’t quite reach the eyes, off-putting and anxiety-producing.
Featured Image: 20th Century Fox