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The Mountain Dismantles the American Dream, One Lobotomy at a Time

Rick Alverson digs beneath the romanticized prosperity of the late 1950s with the story of a controversial lobotomist competing with the rise of psychiatric drugs.

Rick Alverson isn’t trying to rewrite history with The Mountain. Rather, his latest film just offers a unique, and perhaps unpopular, perspective.

Specifically, he digs beneath the romanticized prosperity of the late 1950s with a downbeat look at how a lobotomist struggled to make a living when Thorazine hit the market.

“It’s not a romantic depiction of the era,” Alverson said during the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin. “The fifties are usually presented as this utopian sort of place, and for a very small percentage of the population — white American males — it sort of was. But there’s also inevitably a nuanced, crippling component to that privilege.”

Set in a nondescript he film is told through Andy (Tye Sheridan), a troubled young photographer who becomes the assistant to a traveling lobotomist (Jeff Goldblum) during a time in which such treatments were being outlawed in favor of psychiatric drugs. Despite the horrors he witnesses, Andy acts a timid bystander during the doctor’s gradual downfall.

Alverson based his story loosely on the life of controversial psychiatrist Walter Freeman, the inventor of the transorbital lobotomy, which involved jamming an ice pick through the eye socket in order to reach the brain’s prefrontal cortex — ostensibly treating various mental illnesses.

“I found it to be a fascinating kind of American archetypical male entrepreneurial intelligence,” Alverson said. “We used an architecture of this moment of struggle for him to build this story around.”

Although some find his elliptical work divisive, Alverson (The Comedy) again employs a deliberate, formally constructed filmmaking style that attempts to peel away artifice and meshes with his abstract narrative approach.

“I’m really interested in how content-driven we are in society, and how increasingly ignorant we are of formal components of the world, whether it’s construction or cinema,” he said. “The things that really kick us in the gut are typically formal elements that we’re unaware of. We’re really susceptible to manipulation, which at times can be thrilling but other times can be dangerous.”

Sheridan (Ready Player One) had a small role in Alverson’s prior feature, the anti-comedy Entertainment, and was eager to collaborate with the Virginia-based filmmaker again. He was drawn by Andy’s inaccessible nature.

“He’s everything a protagonist is typically not,” Sheridan said. “This movie just went against the grain in ways that challenge an audience. We knew the character would seem different. It was just a matter of figuring how to allow him to have some sensitivity and allow you to connect with him enough so you felt tethered to him.”

Alverson said the film’s messages are more thematic and experiential than overt, especially when considered through a broad contemporary lens.

“The American dream has become sort of a cancer in the world,” Alverson said. “Boundless opportunities and unlimited options are great concepts for societies that aren’t as privileged as us, but we live in a utopia. The lobotomy is very similar to this sort of utopian cure-all. Freeman is typical of this American spirit.”

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