“A lonely impulse of delight drove to this tumult in the clouds,” wrote W.B. Yeats in 1919’s “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.” His words would apply equally well to the foolhardy souls that scale mountains. Extreme hikers, skiers, snowboarders, and mountain bikers—they are the flawed, unknowable heroes of Mountain, an engaging and enthusiastic documentary that never quite reaches its summit.
In seeking the peak of great documentary filmmaking, Mountain never quite decides which route to take. Its scattershot approach offers more than a few rewards, but it still leaves you with the feeling of an incomplete journey. At least there are some awe-inspiring sights along the way. Throughout, director Jennifer Peedom’s camera soars overhead the world’s highest peaks, dipping over their edges, and plummeting toward the rocks below, taking your breath away with its you-are-there immediacy. Meanwhile, Willem Dafoe’s gravelly baritone waxes poetic over these images about their ancient wisdom and the “siren song of the summit.” If that’s all Mountain were, no one with the capacity to be amazed by natural wonders could possibly complain.
Where the film entices but never fulfills its promise is in its depiction of those who aim to conquer these mountains. Many films have been made about extreme athletes—2015’s Everest comes to mind—but none have looked behind the impulse of delight. Mountain, at least, offers one fairly obvious explanation. After reminding us that, several centuries ago, daily hardships were enough adventure for anyone, Dafoe suggests that, “as everyday life has become safe and more comfortable for some, we have begun to seek danger elsewhere.”
Speak for yourself. I’m more partial to describing it, as the film also does, as “an act of lunacy.” In the film’s riveting middle montage, we see skiers and snowboarders try to outrace planned avalanches. Unharnessed climbers hang by their fingertips above a thousand foot drop. Mountain bikers ride on the rocky edges of steep cliffs. One guy walks a 100-yard tightrope between two peaks in Monument Valley. You won’t find so many insane people anywhere outside of a gathering of Juggalos.
But in time, even death-defying feats can feel dull, and despite its 75-minute runtime, Mountain repeats itself too often. Wide, sweeping shots of mountain ranges only get you so far, and there are just so many ways for Dafoe to remind us that mountains are beautiful but, you know, also quite dangerous. To really sustain itself as a film, Mountain would have needed more of a focus on the human element, on what motivates these thrill-seekers who risk death in the hopes of defeating gravity. Is there anything more in the clouds than a vague tumult? Without an answer to this crucial question, this Mountain feels more like a molehill.
Mountain opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.