Hany Abu-Assad’s The Mountain Between Us is Hatchet by way of Nicholas Sparks. A middling survival film that can’t decide if it wants to be grueling or glamorous, it puts its two good lookin’ movie stars in a fair amount of peril but isn’t exactly on board with the whole blood, snot, and frostbite thing. Every moment of it feels designed to eventually be shown on network TV with minimal edits, while old folks sipping on tea yell “geez, glad I’m not out there,” at the screen. That said, it’s hard for a film with Kate Winslet and Idris Elba to be a complete wash and every once in a while, we get a taste of a much better film than the one we’re stuck in.
Survival films are at their best when the protagonists are either incredibly likable (127 Hours) or palpably deplorable (The Grey). Unfortunately, J. Mills Goodloe’s screenplay can’t quite commit to making Ben (Elba) and Alex (Winslet) really go in either direction. Ben feels like a different character in almost every scene. Sometimes he is strong-willed and resourceful but other times, he’s just flat out prissy. You could play a drinking game for every time he starts to explain something obvious to Alex, who is a little more well defined. She’s reckless and stubborn but underneath has a great deal of vulnerability. The transition from these two being reluctant allies to inseparable lovers feels incredibly forced, ultimately undercutting a great deal of the moments of pathos between them. After all, there’s only so much sexual tension that can come from scenes of Elba telling Winslet that he changed her trousers while she was unconscious, although I’m sure that’ll do it for some people.
Fortunately, Elba and Winslet are charismatic enough to carry this film on their backs. Even with one-note characters and a mediocre script to fight against, they keep everything as grounded as they can. They’re also joined by one of the greatest dogs in movie history, who frankly, elicits more emotion than either of them could ever dream of doing. They never quite find a convincing romantic chemistry together, especially considering the somewhat icky Stockholm-ish elements at play, which really brings the latter half of the film to a screeching halt.
In fact, the pacing is pretty wonky throughout. We’re thrown onto the mountain almost immediately, setting us up for a relentless pace that never materializes. Instead, we’re treated to a great deal of trudging through the snow and sitting at campfires, with the few more dynamic moments always feeling a bit out of place. Then, the third act just peters out completely, refusing to give us anything close to an exciting climax. Instead, we’re forced to wallow in the predictable emotional machinations of weak characters, who meander through a story that comes to an end twenty minutes before the credits roll.
It’s all the more unfortunate that Abu-Assad’s direction is actually fairly strong, particularly in establishing a sense of place. We feel as elevated and alone as our characters do, with beautiful cinematography capturing the vast white hell these two are stuck in. His craftsmanship really shines during the film’s more intense sequences, particularly the excellent single-take plane crash sequence that gets us off and running. It leaves me wondering if he had a much more visceral take on this material in the early stages, that eventually got distilled down by the studio. Regrettably, he only gets a couple of chances to employ his strong eye for suspense sequences after the plane crash and none of them really measure up. Hopefully, his next film will play more to his strengths.
If The Mountain Between Us had decided to embrace the gritty realism that a story like this demands, then they really could’ve had something here. Seeing two people care for each other under incredibly harsh conditions should be utterly thrilling but here, it mostly just comes across as flat. It’s an insignificant blotch on Elba and Winslet’s careers, who both have much more compelling projects on the way later this year. It’s a good thing too because I’m already starting to forget this one. Must be the hypothermia.