Show Me the Mountain, Not Emily Watson

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Everest boasts some sublime imageryWide shots of a thick layer of mist creeping through a valley of frozen snow. Aerials and over-the-head shots of anfractuous paths overlooking precipitous chasms. In one scene, a ladder sags horizontally over a fissure as one of the characters crosses it, and, as he looks down, we look down with him, consumed by a vertiginous POV shot. Here and there, through sweeping shots, director Baltasar Kormákur, working with DP Salvatore Totino, not only captures, but envelops us in the formidable splendor of the eponymous mountain. At his best, Kormákur anthropomorphizes the mountain into a genuinely frightening menace.

The drama of the first half is driven by humans. The film takes place, in 1996, in the midst of the “commercialization of Everest,” a period when climbers, ranging from neophytes to pros, flocked to climb to the peak. The focus is on two climbing consultants, the ne’er do wrong main character (Jason Clarke) and his cocky and charming competitor (Jake Gyllenhaal). The other central characters, a blustering Texan (Josh Brolin), writer Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), a mailman (John Hawkes), are in Clarke’s outfit. Add two wives back home (Keira Knightley and Robin Wright). This abundance of characters isn’t per se the problem with the movie; if anything, it lends realism to the story. In fact, usually there are two sherpas per climber. Nor would climbers be so heedless as to expose their faces in the “dead zone.” They certainly wouldn’t be able to enunciate and articulate with frozen lips, though they have no such problem in this movie. But this isn’t a doc, it’s filmed entertainment.

Still, the way in which Everest is shot, mostly in tight close ups and with lots of cuts, seems not only stale but a waste of the environment (the more treacherous sequences were filmed in the Italian Alps). It’s important to remember that the camera is a character; here it seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time too often. Like when it diverts our attention from the action, to Emily Watson’s character, patching in to the wives at home. Stationed at the basecamp, she’s the equivalent of mission control in NASA movies. She’s a surrogate for the audience, priming us how to feel. The time spent on her could’ve been spent on longer, uninterrupted takes. Regrettably, the camera stays too long on her, and not long enough on the mountain.

By Alec Julian & Carrie White

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