Among the very few pressing questions and observations I jotted down after my viewing of The Mountain Between Us, the most nagging was this one: How do these big-city folks, thrust into perilous survival circumstances, always seem to start fires so easily?
This happens in movies all the time. And certainly here. Photojournalist Alex Martin (Kate Winslet) and neurosurgeon Ben Bass (Idris Elba) are making their painstaking way down and through the High Uintas Wilderness, where their chartered prop plane has lately crashed. And after grueling days trudging through waist-deep snow, nursing their injuries, jonesin' for calories, and imagining a panoply of gruesome deaths, they generally "make camp," with a fire blazing in no time. It happens instantly! One scene ends, and in the next -- just like that – they're cozied up by a fire: in the plane's fuselage, in a cave, under a rock, atop a breast of newfallen snow, even in the abandoned cabin they briefly occupy. I'm like: Where are they finding the fuel? What are they using for kindling? How do these campfires look so healthy? Late in the film, after a particularly demoralizing trudge, Alex and Ben pass out against a tree. Their physical and psychic resources have been so depleted, we can tell, that they can't even be bothered to gather wood. Now that's realism.
But I'm picking nits. In general, the film, based on a 2011 novel by Charles Martin of the same name, presents an adequately gripping survival narrative that stuffs and upholsters a basic love story. The blooming romance between Alex and Ben is clearly the movie's whole point, and you may find that you don't want much more: It's not like every movie needs an earth-shattering plot twist or an elaborate narrative device to make it better. Sometimes a good story just needs to be told. And The Mountain Between Us is more or less unique these days in that it's presented with no narrative bells and whistles whatsoever. There are no flashbacks. There are no time hops. This is merely the story of two strangers in mortal circumstances who come to rely on each other, and then, perhaps conventionally, come to care for each other. When you've got actors like Elba and Winslet on board, that's enough of a hook. It opens Friday in wide release.
Apart from companionable Labrador mix, Alex and Ben are alone for most of the film. After the bad news at the Idaho airport – no flights due to an approaching storm – they charter a private plane to Denver. Ben has an urgent surgery the following morning in Baltimore. Alex has a wedding – her own. But as the storm approaches, the pilot (Beau Bridges) suffers a stroke, and the plane crashes into the mountains. The bad news gets worse when Alex and Ben realize they didn't tell anyone about their updated travel plans, and in the hours and days following their crash, they sense that no one is coming for them. They've got to get to safety on their own.
Wintry descents like this one can go sideways in endless ways, yet the tribulations suffered here are all pretty rote and unoriginal: a mountain lion, a near-fall, a plunge into freezing water. It's not like Everest, where a lack of oxygen, subzero temperatures and gale-force winds are greeted with jollity, then dread, by the affluent excursioners. Here, the deaths will arrive slowly, caused by either hunger or exposure or some combo of the two.
Worth noting: Utah's High Uintas Wilderness is bracing in its vastness. While watching, you might experience a bit of a shock when you consider just how enormous the United States of America is. One thinks of these survival narratives as happening elsewhere – the Himalayas, the Alps. But when Ben ascends a ridge to get a better view of the surroundings, he sees nothing, not a soul or sign of organized society in sight. The scenery, like the romance itself, seems cold and inhospitable at first. And then, all at once it isn't.
Last year, The Light Between Oceans was my favorite romance based on a novel with two powerhouse leads. The Mountain Between Us, directed by Hamy Abu-Assad (Omar) takes the cake this year.