Jason Arment reviews The Mountain, a film loosely based on the lobotomist Walter Freeman about a tour to promote his recently-debunked procedure. (Kino Lorber)
The first thing everyone notices about The Mountain is that it stars Jeff Goldblum, whose career of quirky parts reflect an eccentric man especially adept at playing someone like Walter Freeman. Walter Freeman was, of course, the father of the lobotomy procedure as we know it.
Tye Sheridan plays Andy, the son of a figure skating coach whose mother was treated by Dr. Freeman before his father drops dead, at the start of the film. From the little we get to see of the father, he is austere and severe, even cruel—which makes sense considering he had his wife lobotomized. Shortly after his father dies, Andy decides to go on tour with Dr. Freeman while he promotes his surgery as it falls from favor.
While on the road, Andy realizes what Dr. Freeman has done to his mother, and this upsets him a great deal. Andy, who is nearly always stoic and turned inward, eventually has enough. I’m not going to spoil anything, because this is the sort of film that really deserves its ending.
Much like The Lobster, there is much in The Mountain that doesn’t easily lend itself to interpretation by laymen. Luckily, the average person’s ability to look up who Walter Freeman was on Wikipedia and read all about him saves the film from obscurity. That’s right, this is based on actual events, and though I doubt Andy or his mother actually existed, this tale does stick close to its subject material.
(The Mountain movie poster)
Freeman took a procedure which had just been invented and extrapolated on the facets he found lacking. First and foremost, he figured if enough volts were shot through a patient’s head via electroshock therapy, they would be rendered unconscious, thus forgoing the need of an anesthesiologist; an ice pick could then be inserted at the back of a patient’s eye socket, near the tear ducts, and hammered into the skull with a hammer, thus forgoing the need for a neurosurgeon.
At first, actual ice picks were used, but then Dr. Freeman added a final flourish to the procedure—a deep cut through the lobe—which caused an ice pick to bend in someone’s brain, in one case. So, Dr. Freeman invented the orbitoclast, a much sturdier, and longer, ice pick variant. And so, the procedure was transformed to the setting it would be most easily administered—dark, forgotten rooms of mental asylums, far from the prying eyes of medical professionals.
Needless to say, many people didn’t survive the procedure, and more still were permanently crippled. There were success stories, but those seem to be the exception, not the rule. Dr. Freeman didn’t concern himself with this, but instead was much more concerned with being a showman, and even killed a patient when he posed for a photo during the procedure. Freeman was something of a barnstormer when it came to proliferating the treatment, which he stopped administering himself when he eventually killed his final patient. This was after it fell out of favor due to its barbarism.
Jeff Goldblum gives a great performance of a man who preyed on people for little more than the sake of his own ego. Tye Sheridan gives a subdued performance of Andy, of which I can’t get into without spoiling the film. They help portray the United States mental health system as it was, a place where the unwanted disappeared. Everything about the film is muted, from the colors to the settings, and Dr. Freeman never so much as pauses to think about the implications of his actions. Though The Mountain isn’t a star-studded, action-packed film, it’s certainly a film with the courage to be exactly what it is—art.