Your Own Terms: East of the Mountains (2021)-Reviewed

 Based on the novel of the same name, East of the Mountains follows Ben Givens (Tom Skerritt), a retired heart surgeon with a recent terminal cancer diagnosis. Taking his dog with him, he has a final dinner with his daughter (Mira Sorvino) before heading out to Washington State’s Colombia Basin. This site, near where he grew up and fell in love with his now deceased wife, is to serve as the place where he’ll end his life on his own terms. If only it were that simple. 

What’s remarkable about East of the Mountains is how little actually happens despite the weighty theme of death hanging heavily over the proceedings. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as it allows Ben’s ponderous journey through the wilderness and his past to breathe. The lack of propulsive motion, however, leaves this at a crossroads: sometimes an interesting tone poem, mostly a shallow slog. 

Ostensibly there’s one major movement. Ben, while asleep in the wilderness, is jarred awake by a barking dog. The dog attacks his and after unsuccessfully kicking it away, he shoots and kills it. A man on a quad shows up, berates Ben for killing his dog and takes his shotgun as a sort of retribution. We spend the rest of the film with Ben as he has flashbacks, befriends a veterinarian and her family and attempts to retrieve his gun so he can end his life. 

You get the sense that all of this works much better in David Guterson’s novel. The flashbacks amount to very little in terms of character progression or exposition and the problem lies in Ben being too internal a character. There’s almost nothing to him and you’re forced to rely on your own conclusions to try and relate to him. He has very little tethering him to his mortal coil, his daughter relegated to a minor inconvenience that he keeps ignoring. So much so that any time the film circles back to her desperately searching for him, all through voicemail, you have to jostle your memory to remember she exists. It’s a bizarrely insulting reduction of a world class actress who’s already suffered a career of indignities. The various threads of Ben’s mind and their oscillations to past and present are so brief and stilted, there’s nothing sticky enough to invest in. It’s a film so full of life but never interested in sharing it with you. 

Skerritt plays this as such and it’s a muted and stiff performance. He never accesses the sadness or loneliness you assume he’s feeling. He lists aimlessly along from one dalliance to the next with nothing but a slight look of bemusement. He’s not given nearly enough to work with and it deeply affects his performance. The flashbacks to his dead wife are meant to connect you to his current detachment but they’re so incongruously placed within the narrative. It’s a jumbled mess of a character who again, most likely worked better on the printed page where his thoughts and wants can be better illustrated and land with the emotional wallop the film simply doesn’t muster up. 

As it is, East of the Mountains is a monotonous, if inoffensive, stroll. Intermittently gorgeous, the natural scenery and drone work is absolutely stunning, director S. J. Chiro has a keen eye for location. But even then, as the film drags along, the cuts to expansive and breathtakingly vast shots of valleys and mountains become far too relied upon. Almost as if it knows there’s nothing here and wants to wow you with its canny craftsmanship, hoping you’ll get lost in the trees somewhere and forget there’s nothing here. 

What a shame this is. The material present is the kind that an elder statesmen like Skerritt could sink his teeth into and do something special with while he plays around with end-of-life thematic weight. The kind of late-period performance that serves as a career-capper of sorts. Instead he’s given next to nothing to work with and neither are we. 

-Brandon Streussnig