I have a feeling that The Mountain Between Us is going to make a lot of audiences angry, not because it’s offensive or crude, but because the ads have been promising a story of survival when in fact it’s a story of love. Admittedly, it took me hours after the screening I attended to make sense of and then accept what director Hany Abu-Assad, primarily known for films that examine Palestinian characters, was aiming for. This isn’t a gritty, uncompromising, unsentimental film about the struggle to survive in the unforgiving wilderness; it’s a story in which survival is a narrative means to an end, which is to say a device that allows for the two lead characters to fall in love with each other.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach, as films such as Titanic have proven. However, when a film requires suspension of disbelief, especially if it’s a love story, audiences must be correctly primed. Those that go into this movie expecting what the ads have been promising, a harrowing man vs. nature action/adventure, will be sorely disappointed. It’s a romantic drama. In order to appreciate this film, you must embrace clichés, contrivances, and dramatic license, and you must not be cynical about love blossoming in the face of adversity. If you can’t bring yourself to do this, see something else.
Adapted from the novel by Charles Martin, unread by me, it tells the story of British neurosurgeon Ben Bass (Idris Elba) and American photojournalist Alex Martin (Kate Winslet), whose respective flights out of Idaho are cancelled due to inclement weather; desperate to get back to where they need to be – Alex in New York for her wedding, Ben in Baltimore to perform an important operation on a child – they charter a private plane to a different airport, only for the pilot (Beau Bridges) to suffer a stroke mid flight. They crash dramatically in the snowy mountains. The pilot is killed. Alex suffers a broken leg and is unconscious for several days. Ben is scratched and bruised but otherwise okay.
Before we get to the conventions of the two falling in love, we must first go through the conventions of survival movies: The fact that no rescue planes are being sent Alex and Ben’s way, because the pilot didn’t bother to officially report his flight plan; a scene in which a mountain lion threatens Alex’s life, as if it has a personal vendetta against her; the realization that they have very little food, and that their only source of water is the snow; the moment when Ben fires a flare that fails to catch the attention of a passing plane; the exhausting, dangerous hikes through heavy snowbanks, over freezing waters, and on the edges of tall cliffs. My favorite convention, not often seen outside of an animated feature, was giving Ben and Alex an animal companion, namely the pilot’s golden retriever dog, who of course would be brought along during a private charter flight, survive the crash, not get killed during the mountain lion attack, and somehow stay alert and active for weeks with few apparent supplies of food or water.
Ben and Alex’s love reveals itself in teasing increments, as is the case in a lot of love stories, until at last they express it physically in an abandoned cabin – which, incidentally, has clearly been abandoned for years and has a gaping hole in the roof yet still has two cans of edible soup and a snake bite kit that Ben can convert into a crude but effective IV drip for Alex. We see all the narrative hallmarks: Ben being evasive and moody when it comes to discussing his wife; the guilt Alex feels about not telling her fiancé she loved him during their last phone call; the debates over whether to stay put or move forward; heated moments in which Ben blames Alex for his predicament; the small but relieving moments of levity, because hey, laughing is a nice alternative to crying.
I obviously can’t reveal whether or not Ben and Alex are rescued, although there are more than enough other movies like this out there, so chances are you already know. I suppose that’s beside the point. The Mountain Between Us, a title that’s both literal and figurative, is the kind of film that intentionally appeals to the heart rather than the head. This isn’t to say that it’s badly made. Quite the opposite; Elba and Winslet have wonderful onscreen chemistry, their performances are convincing, and both the majesty and menace of their characters’ mountainous surroundings are beautifully photographed. I think even the most hard-hearted audiences would be hard pressed to argue against that.