Kate Winslet and Idris Elba in The Mountain Between Us.
I like dogs. I think most people, if the Internet is any indication, like dogs, too. Many like dogs more than me. I know this because a) I don’t have a dog; b) when a dog shows up in a movie, my butthole clenches. Very few, if any, films have been made qualitatively better with the inclusion of a dog. Dogs are a lazy-ass crutch that you can always cut to in any situation to fully manipulate the audience and ensure you get the right reaction. Dogs make people go “aww” in nearly any situation, and almost no movie (except, maybe, Marley & Me) actually benefits from gratuitous awwwing.
There’s a cute dog in The Mountain Between Us; a Golden Shepherd, maybe, who’s never given a name. He’s a mighty cute and personable dog, but he represents in a nutshell everything that’s wrong with this corny romantic drama that has the gall to dress itself up in its best adventure movie clothes but never truly hide its Hallmark Original soul. The dog is narratively useless (at least until a third act Doge Ex Machina twist) but he’s used as the emotional crux of the whole movie. There is not a sad, funny, romantic or touching moment that isn’t commented upon by a cutaway shot of the dog raising his eyebrows or whimpering. At least he doesn’t cover his eyes with his paws, but maybe this particular model of doggo doesn’t work like that.
Ben (Idris Elba) is a neurosurgeon who needs to get across the country to perform emergency surgery; Alex (Kate Winslet) is a photojournalist who has to return to New York to get married. Stranded in an airport by a storm, they decide to charter a plane from a jovial good ol’ boy (Beau Bridges, for some reason) in order to get there on time. They hop onto the tiny plane with the pilot and his dog, but the pilot has a stroke while they’re flying over the Rockies, crashing the plane and leaving them stranded with no food or shelter in the harsh winter of the Rocky Mountains.
Ben and Alex are kind of opposites, I guess; he’s very controlling and by-the-book, and she’s nosy and constantly relying on her “gut” to make decisions. This is worth mentioning because, for much of the duration of The Mountain Between Us, this is about all we know about our two main characters. One of the most perplexing things about the film’s anemic screenplay is that it features long stretches of two characters simply killing time – without ever talking about themselves or revealing who they are.
Movies like this one – where two strangers are bound together by fate – basically write themselves a blank cheque to spew exposition in the dialogue. You’re sitting around dying with a total stranger? Why, it’s the perfect opportunity to explain your entire life in the kind of detail you wouldn’t need to give someone who knows you even just a little bit. The Mountain Between Us, perplexingly, keeps what tiny bits of personality it gives its characters in check and doles them out like plot developments. (Is Ben still married or what? Better wait to deal with this after three weeks of trudging through snow!)
The Mountain Between Us is ostensibly an adventure film and, indeed, the portion of time it spends putting its two characters in peril is reasonably gripping. It makes the most of the stunning landscapes, but there isn’t a particular sense of danger to the proceedings. I wasn’t expecting The Revenant levels of peril here – I rarely do – but on the scale of man vs. nature carnage, this barely registers above The Adventures of Yellow Dog. Even that one had the wherewithal to put the dog right there in the title.
All of this would be forgivable (or at least understandable) if The Mountain Between Us succeeded at what it actually is: a big, soppingly sentimental vehicle for its two stars. At its core, the film is in the tradition of studio weepies meant to showcase the charisma and charm of its two stars – which is why it is absolutely unforgivable that the end product could have starred anyone. It is a purely anonymous vehicle that never comes close to giving its stars the chance to flex the muscles that make them stars in the first place. Their characters are so underwritten that Elba and Winslet barely seem to be acting at all in some scenes. If it wasn’t for the towering mountain landscapes behind them, you could almost mistake some of their scenes for pretty good footage from a read-through.
The Mountain Between Us is doubly dispiriting when you consider that it’s the Hollywood debut of Abu-Assad, the critically acclaimed and prize-winning director of Paradise Now and Omar. The film’s anonymity almost certainly has something to do with Abu-Assad – he’s the director, after all – but even he cannot be expected to spin gold out of a mountain of ant shit. I guess that’s why the dog – that fucking dog – features so prominently. Even acclaimed Dutch/Palestinian arthouse directors know that if it looks like you’re fucked, you can always cut to the dog. ■
The Mountain Between Us opens in theatres on Friday, Oct. 6. Watch the trailer here: