Sometimes, a good film just sneaks up on you.
That was certainly the case with me and East of the Mountains, an independent film which came out last September. I have to admit that the film completely slipped past me when it was initially released. In fact, I didn’t even know that the film existed until it was nominated for Best Motion Picture Drama by the Satellite Awards in December. I wasn’t alone in that. I remember when the Satellite nominations were announced, there were a lot of people who looked at the list of nominees and, upon seeing an unfamiliar title mixed in with West Side Story, The Power of the Dog, and Don’t Look Up, said, “East of what?”
Because I’m always on the lookout for an overlooked gem, I rented East of the Mountains on Prime. I watched it yesterday. My initial reaction was that it was a well-made film, featuring both pretty scenery and an excellent lead performance from veteran actor Tom Skerritt. (Skerritt is also credited as being an executive producer on the film.) I appreciated that, in a time when so many film feels as if they’re at least ten minutes too long, East of the Mountains was a remarkably short film. It only needed 79 minutes to tell its simple but effective story and it didn’t waste a single one of them. At the time, I also thought that the film’s direction was perhaps a bit too low-key for the film to really work. I thought it was a good film but I also thought it was one that I would probably forget about in a day or two.
Instead, the opposite has happened. East of the Mountains has stuck with me. Even as I sit here typing, I can still picture the film’s final few scenes in my head. That’s the type of film that East of the Mountains is. It’s a film that sneaks up on its audience, capturing their attention so subtly that it’s not until several hours later that they realize that they’re still thinking about the film.
Based on a novel by David Guterson, East of the Mountains is a character study. Tom Skerritt plays Ben Givens. Ben is a retired doctor and a veteran of the Korean War. He lives in Seattle. His wife has passed away. He’s estranged from his brother. His daughter is busy with a family of her own. Ben’s only companion is his dog, Rex. When he tells his daughter (played by Mira Sorvino) that he’s planning on going bird hunting for the weekend, she’s concerned. She knows that her father has been depressed. She also knows that Ben has recently been diagnosed with cancer. Ben assures her that he just wants to see his “old stomping grounds” one last time but his daughter worries that Ben may be planning on never coming back.
She’s not wrong. Since we’ve already seen Ben pressing the barrel of a rifle against his forehead, we know that she has every reason to be concerned about his plans. Ben is considering ending it all, east of the mountains where he grew up, fell in love, and experienced his happiest moment. However, from the minute that Ben sets off on what he plans to be his final hunting trip, fate seems to be determined to keep him alive. After his SUV breaks down, he’s given a ride by a mountain climbing couple and their love reminds Ben of when he first met the woman who he would eventually marry. After a run-in with a half-crazed mountain man, Ben loses his prized rifle, the one that was given to him by his father and which Ben planned to use to end his own life. After an unexpected dog fights leads to Ben taking Rex to the local animal hospital, he meets a young veterinarian who can tell that Ben needs someone to talk to.
The plot is rather simple but Tom Skerritt’s performance brings the story a certain depth that it might not otherwise possess. It would be easy to sentimentalize a character like Ben or to portray him as being flawless. Instead, Skerritt plays Ben as someone who is genuinely well-meaning and naturally kid but who also can occasionally be a bit self-absorbed. Watching Ben, one can understand why his brother is estranged from him, which makes their eventual, if rather prickly reunion all the more poignant. (Ben’s brother is well-played by an actor named Wally Dalton. He and Skerritt play off of each other with such skill that it’s hard to believe that they actually aren’t brothers.) The viewer hopes that Ben will find what he needs to find in order to achieve some sort of peace for himself, even if Ben himself doesn’t always seem to be quite sure what that possibly mythical thing would be.
Skerritt’s performance here is comparable to Robert Redford’s turn in All Is Lost, with the main difference being that Ben is far more lost than even Reford’s unnamed sailor. However, much like the sailor in All is Lost, it’s impossible to look away from Ben’s journey. It’s also tempting to compare Skerritt’s performance to Rchard Farnsworth’s Oscar-nominated turn in David Lynch’s The Straight Story. (Indeed, the scene between Skerritt and Dalton is comparable to the final scene between Farnsworth and Harry Dean Stanton.) Much like Farnsworth in Lynch’s film, Tom Skerritt may move slowly but the viewer is always aware of his mind working.
East of the Mountains may sound like a depressing or heavy-handed film but actually it’s not. If anything, it’s life-affirming. The audience is right alongside Ben, learning with him that the world is not as terrible a place as he had convinced himself it was. In the end, the viewer cares about Ben and worries about what his ultimate fate will be. The film’s ending sneaks up on you and it stays with you afterwards.
There is one scene involving a dog fight that is difficult to watch but otherwise, East of the Mountains is a simple but poignant film that deserves more attention than it’s received.