At The Movies With…
Lady Beverly Cohn
If you ask movie buffs who Tom Skerrit is, they may or may not recognize the name, but would probably recognize his face. In actuality, this seasoned actor has appeared in over 40 films and more than 200 episodic television programs starting as far back as 1962, earning an Emmy Award in 1992 for Outstanding Lead in a Drama Series for his performance in “Picket Fences.” Some of his cinematic roles include, “M*A*S*H,” “The Dead Zone,” “Top Gun,” and “A River Runs Through It.” Despite being cast in countless films, he has mostly played supporting roles, so it made perfect sense for him to find a vehicle in which he could play the main character, which he does in EAST OF THE MOUNTAINS, on which he is also one of five executive producers.
As I watched the film, adapted from the book by David Guterson, who co-wrote the screenplay with Thane Swigart, it began to feel familiar. Directed by SJ Chiro, the film opens with somber violin music, as Sebastien Scandiuzzi’s excellent camera work pans trees dripping with fog. We meet Skerritt’s character of Dr. Ben Givens, a retired cardiac surgeon from Seattle, who practiced medicine for 50 years, sitting alone in his kitchen with his dog Rex. Mourning the death of his wife, he is depressed, and is dealing with terminal cancer. Ben assembles the family rifle and places the barrel against his head, but aborts the action. His daughter Renee, nicely played by Oscar and Golden Globe winner Mira Sorvino, has her own challenges as she’s in the middle of a divorce and is depressed herself. However, she wants dad to live with her so she can take care of him, but he tells her he wants to take a final trip to Washington State’s Columbia Basin, which is where he grew up. She is worried about him driving alone, but he assures her that he will be fine. As he drives along with his dog, Les Hall’s moody music continues to underscore his frame of mind. Unexpectedly, the car overheats and a young man pulls over and offers him a ride. There is a brief respite from the morbid music as the young couple have a rock station blasting in their car. It’s at about at this point, that I remember where I’ve seen this film before. It was “LAND,” directed by and starring Robin Wright, as the storyline is closely paralleled. She suffered a great loss and decides to drop out from society and stashes herself in a remote cabin in the Wyoming Mountains. A stranger named Miguel, played by Demián Bichir, intercedes and her suicidal thoughts slowly diminishes as he teaches her how to hunt and fish. In this case, Ben, who appears to be in a great deal of physical pain, and shows it throughout most of the film, goes bird hunting for dinner which he shares with his trusty dog. While asleep around a camp fire, Rex is attacked and severely injured by another dog. Unfortunately, the good doctor has to shoot the assailant about which the owner, a scary mountain man named Bill Harden, played by John Paulsen, becomes furious and threatening. He takes Ben’s rifle and tells him he’s lucky he doesn’t kill him. Just as in “LAND,” where a stranger intercedes, a man named Roberto, played by Robert Fuentes, appears out of nowhere and takes our protagonist and his wounded companion to a veterinarian named Anita, delightfully played by Annie Gonzalez who lightens up the dreary action with her cheerful demeanor. Ben, who somehow had medical supplies with him, had stitched Rex’s wound and Anita admires his suturing. She drives him to a nearby motel and the next day, he visits his dogat the clinic and eventually Anita invites him for dinner. She is an ex-Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and as it turns out, he was in the Army and served in Korea where his best buddy got shot. Watching the medical procedure motivated him to become a physician. As in “LAND” there are family flashbacks, Ben’s being to when he courted his wife Rachel, including dancing at local county fair and his depression deepens, which is pretty much the note he strikes throughout the film. His brother Aiden, played by Wally Dalton, still lives in the old family cabin, and chastises Ben for not taking care of their dying father. He offers excuses as to why he couldn’t and then reveals his illness. In an act of defiance, Ben goes to Harden’s cabin, demanding the return his rifle. This mountain of a man threatens to shoot him and Ben dares him to do so, placing the end of the rifle against his head himself. Thinking this guy is crazy, he returns the rifle and tells him if he ever sees him again, that he will kill him. In furthering his plan to off himself, Ben issues instructions that Rex be picked up by his daughter but fear not, the film concludes with a lively rendition of “Shine Little Glow Worm,” a welcome respite from the mostly doom and gloom music score throughout most of the film.
Regarding Skerritt’s almost one-note characterization, the criticism must lay squarely at the feet of the director for allowing him to continuously exhibit the physical pain, instead of playing against it. It’s difficult to watch a film where the protagonist shows his agony almost throughout the picture. It was the director’s job to guide Skerritt in finding other colors for his character, which he is more than capable of doing. Beside the suffering of the two main characters, the final parallel between LAND, which was shot in October 2019, and EAST OF THE MOUNTAINS, filmed around June 2019, is the almost identical denouement. This might call for the “chicken/egg” speculation or the film could be renamed: “Land Meets East of the Mountains.” Just kidding.
Distributor: No Distributor
Release Date: Current
Where: On SIFF only (Seattle International Film Festival)
Running Time: 93 Minutes