In between starring roles in blockbusters like Ready Player One and X-Men: Dark Phoenix, Elkhart native Tye Sheridan continues to make unorthodox film choices. His most recent foray into idiosyncratic cinema is Rick Alverson’s The Mountain, which premiered at SXSW on March 12 (and at Sundance earlier this year). The story, which takes place in the early fifties, costars Jeff Goldblum as Dr. Wallace Fiennes, a drunken, womanizing lobotomist who takes Sheridan’s character, Andy, under his wing. Andy and Fiennes hit the road as the doctor performs the transorbital procedure on unlucky patients throughout the Pacific Northwest.
It’s a dark film, both in subject matter and in visuals and tone. The film features muted colors—lots of earth tones and beige—and most of its characters are calm, quiet, and seemingly unemotional. At times comic, mostly tragic, and always surreal, The Mountain is a provocative examination of how careless innovation and emotional ambivalence can combine to destroy lives.
The Mountain is the second collaboration between Sheridan and Alverson, who first worked together on the latter’s 2015 film, Entertainment, and the pair have developed a rewarding creative partnership. Texas Monthly spoke to them at SXSW about the history of the transorbital lobotomy, the stories that attract them, and a familiar type of American charlatan.
Texas Monthly: Rick, what inspired you to make a movie about transorbital lobotomies?
Rick Alverson: Dr. Walter Freeman, whom the character of Wallace Fiennes is built on, had worked on the full-frontal lobotomy with his partner James Watts. Then, in classic male entrepreneurial fashion, he said, “How do I do this more efficiently, faster, and without expertise?” Freeman didn’t have a license to perform surgery—he was a neurologist—and he devised the transorbital lobotomy, going through the cavity of the eye, which he thought of as an outpatient procedure. Some people were ostensibly healed, others were killed on the table, others became incontinent for life—their symptoms were all over the map. But Freeman was willfully ignorant of the ramifications, all the detritus of these human lives. That just seemed like a great case study for a particular kind of American charlatanism.
TM: Tye, when you read the script, what made you want to play Andy?
Tye Sheridan: I really enjoyed working with Rick on Entertainment. Shortly after that, Rick sent me a treatment for The Mountain. I was drawn to the era that it was set in, what the movie would explore, and how it would challenge an audience. Rick’s movies always do that. And I felt like it would be a challenge for me, because the character’s largely mute.
TM: Since the character of Andy is so often silent, much of the acting was physical, and very subtle. How did you identify and plan these subtleties?
RA: That was particularly exciting and challenging, because we were we were essentially doing everything you’re not supposed to do with the protagonist. He’s opaque and inaccessible. Tye’s capable of tremendous empathy and fragility as an actor, and he can go there with an ease that few people have. For us, it was it was about developing the physicality: the way he moved, how he stood.
TS: It’s like he already lives in a slightly clouded reality, and after the procedure [Andy is lobotomized], it just becomes more elevated.
RA: Yeah, but that’s interior, which is the thing that interests me. When that event happens, you’re supposed to have tremendous evidence for the audience to signal the change. What’s interesting to me is, “What happens when the character doesn’t change?” The audience is forced to alter their perspective or their relationship to the character. The more I contemplate it, the more I love it—the absence of change.
TM: I noticed there were a lot of shots of corners, of where the walls and floor meet in a room. There’s one shot where Andy illuminates a dark space with his camera flash, but all that’s there is the empty corner. Why did you have Andy do that?
RA: I mean, the corner was a literal mountain, and he’s interested in what he can’t see. The corner has an imbalance of all the attributes of the different sides of the room. [That represents] the gender conundrum: It’s a very male-oriented film, and the mother is missing from the equation, so it’s lopsided entirely, and the emotional intelligence is missing. Young men, like young women, long for something that is more whole. He’s looking for what’s not there.
TS: I grew up in Texas, in a small town. A lot of older men there, and younger generations, take pride in being unemotional. The movie really explores that—the tether that males have to being unemotional.
RA: And that they suffer from it. In our acute state of trying to unpack all of this shit now, sometimes that acknowledgement of suffering can be missing from the discussion. While men—particularly white American males—have been the most privileged sect of society, there is a certain sense of imbalance and suffering that occurs, even though they’re the beneficiaries of everything in an outward sense. I’ve seen firsthand in men of that generation that the imbalance creates a deep emotional void.
TM: When Dr. Fiennes and Andy travel to perform the lobotomies, they first go to a hospital for white women, then another hospital for white women, then a hospital for black men, and then, as the last, a hospital for white men. Was that order intentional?
RA: There was an intention to make it unabashedly a white world, and suddenly you’re thrown into the African American hospital in textural contrast to so much of the rest of that film. It was supposed to highlight the absence of exposure that people would have to the “other.”
TM: I noticed that whenever two people touch in the film, there is a lot of curvature—bodies wrapping around one another in both sexual and nonsexual ways. This was set up at the beginning of the film by Andy’s dream, where he sees two people making out and can’t tell which part is the man and which part is the woman. And when Dr. Fiennes is with a woman, Jeff Goldblum’s body is always wrapped around them in what feels like a very unnatural way.
RA: Well, there’s the sort of hermaphrodite of antiquity that’s the central metaphor of the film, however helpful they are. I consider it an anti-utopian film because of the problems with American utopianism. There’s an ideal of being able to merge with another, particularly in the way we’ve talked about genders—this idea that there’s some sort of union at the aspirational summit.
TM: There are two characters that are fathers in the film, one German and one French. The French father is the most expressive character in the film by far. Was that an intentional casting choice, made to contrast with an ambitious, willfully blind type of American maleness?
RA: Yeah. Our country was founded on something that began in a European restlessness, so it made sense in the apex of the twentieth century to have these restless, old-world characters in there.
TM: It made me wonder why certain behaviors were unacceptable—why some necessitated a procedure and others didn’t. Both the Frenchman and Dr. Fiennes medicate their emotions with alcohol, which seems to be acceptable, but when Andy has his one emotional outburst, it warrants a procedure by Dr. Fiennes.
TS: I think Fiennes doesn’t understand Andy’s internal depression—the lack of his mother’s presence in his life, the death of his father, and just being on a road to nowhere. Fiennes is almost trying to put Andy out of his misery.
RA: It’s a matter of pride too. He’s essentially cornered. How can he continue to debate the veracity of this procedure when somebody literally is asking for it? Largely, the lobotomy was a pacifying procedure. There are a lot of parallels to cinema here—essentially, Andy is a surrogate for the audience, as all protagonists are. The audience, by default, has an expectation of being pacified, as opposed to being activated by the film. Fiennes cinematizes him.
TS: I love it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.