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Arts & Life

Beautiful And Unexpected, 'East Of The Mountains' Still Uses Clichés About The Elderly

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Phantom Rock Films
Tom Skerritt in East of the Mountains, directed by S.J. Chiro.

East of the Mountains is based on the best-selling novel by David Guterson. It's about a retired surgeon who learns he has terminal cancer then returns to his boyhood home in Washington state. For KUNC film critic Howie Movshovitz, who teaches film and television at CU Denver, the movie takes unexpected turns, but still employs clichés about elderly people.

Ben Givens, played by Tom Skerritt, is a retired, widowed cardiologist in Seattle who looks like he's had it with life. He moves slowly. He sighs when he takes a shotgun out of its case as he considers killing himself. But then he meets his daughter, Mira Sorvino, at a restaurant to worry her with the news that he's going hunting near where he grew up on the far side of Washington's Cascade Mountains.

“So, when will you be back?”

“Thursday or Friday, I’m OK, I just want to go over the mountains and let the dog run around and walk a little.”

“Ok, when you come back, we’re going to have a serious talk,”

“A serious talk?”

“Yes, about you coming to live with us.. You, know if you have to start treatment.”

“If….”

It's no trick to make the landscape of the American West look pretty, but it's hard to make that landscape look meaningful. Director S.J. Chiro pulls that off in East of the Mountains.

As Ben drives up the green side of the Cascades and then down the dry east side, it feels as if he's being shaved down to some core part of himself, and you see it in the craggy hills with sheer walls and not much plant life to soften either the land itself or the look of Ben. He's stripped down more when steam starts to pour out from under the engine hood and his car rolls to a stop. A couple of lively young climbers give him a ride to a trailhead where the sagebrush landscape spreads out ahead of him, and he's alone in this dry expanse. No cell phone, no car, no other people — just a small pack, the shotgun and his dog.

Tom Skerritt, now 87, has long been underappreciated. His moves and his voice are quiet and spare. He calls attention to his character, but not to himself. His performance as a “has been” could fool you that there's nothing there, like the deceptive, scrabbly low hills he hobbles along.

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Phantom Rock Films
Tom Skerritt in East of the Mountains, directed by S.J. Chiro.

Ben's clipped and guarded with his daughter and with the young veterinarian Anita Romero, who tends to Ben's dog, Rex, after he's been attacked one night by a vicious dog and an equally hostile man. Ben talks in taut, low monosyllables. He's wary and preoccupied. Skerritt shows little feeling or connection in his face until you start to notice the subtle movement of his eyes and slight turns of his head. Only over the course of East of the Mountains do you get glimpses of feeling in Ben and discover bits of his sadness and his history. It's an uncanny performance.

Skerrett’s face doesn't let on what Ben's purpose might be, whether he wants to die in the wilderness he knew as a kid or he wants to find something he's lost. He looks beat up. But after Rex is injured, Ben carries him for hours and you sense the loyalty in him. But Ben is never quite what you'd call nice. He accepts some kindness from Annie Gonzales, the veterinarian, but mostly after he learns that they were both Marines who saw combat. Friendship's not easy for this man, who has seen serious pain in his work and in his life.

What I question in East of the Mountains may not be the fault or the responsibility of this movie alone. East of the Mountains takes unexpected turns. Characters are surprising, but it still lurches into cheap clichés about old people. Ben is full of woe. He senses his life is near its end, whether he helps the process along or not. But where is it written that old people must be fragile, lonely and imprisoned by their thoughts about the past? It would be great to see an old character who's vigorous and optimistic, like a lot of actual people in the world. But this film is still beautiful.

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