2015, PG-13, 121 min. Directed by Baltasar Kormákur. Starring Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, John Hawkes, Emily Watson, Sam Worthington, Michael Kelly, Thomas Wright, Keira Knightley, Robin Wright, Martin Henderson.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Sept. 18, 2015
The world’s highest summit ominously presides over the chaotic tragedy in Everest with a serene yet brutal authority. There’s never any doubt here: The mountain will always have the last word. Based on the ill-fated 1996 ascent of the Himalayan peak by two expedition groups, during which several persons perished (the same disastrous climb that Outside magazine journalist and expedition member Jon Krakauer chronicled in the bestseller Into Thin Air), the film is an unflinching sensory experience. Without mercy, it depicts the physical anguish these climbers (amateur and professional alike) endure when they tread the unforgiving terrain of the Death Zone (starting at around 26,000 feet), a height at which oxygen barely exists, to realize the pinnacle achievement of all mountaineers. (As a point of reference, this elevation is the approximate cruising altitude of a 747 airliner.) Shortness of breath, pulmonary and cerebral edema, frostbite, snow blindness, and disorientation – these are the penance one must perform to become a member of the elite five-and-a-half-mile-high club. And then there’s death, the ultimate act of contrition for daring to challenge the magnificent beast that dwarfs everything else known to mankind. Combined with the unrelenting cold, lacerating wind, and blinding snow with flakes as fine as sand that dominate a landscape stunningly captured by cinematographer Salvatore Totino, these physiological effects are often overwhelming to witness, looming over the film like the shadow of the massif the hapless expedition members seek to conquer. This is a movie you feel deeply in the pit of your stomach. Sometimes, it literally hurts to watch it.
Icelandic director Kormákur and screenwriters William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy wisely choose to tell this ensemble-driven story in a methodical, almost documentary-like fashion, without any overt commentary on the hubris of lofty dreams. Can anyone really rationally explain why he’s willing to suffer and risk his life to reach the top? (The filmmakers’ approach explains the rather abrupt ending, which some viewers desiring a sense of catharsis may find unsatisfying.) While the film provides some insight into the personal lives of a few of the climbers, such as the macho Texas doctor whose brashness masks a depressive streak (Brolin), it primarily focuses on the calamitous trek up and down the mountain, from the time the upbeat expedition participants first meet in Nepal to the bedraggled survivors’ return to base camp. (Is it me, or does Brolin with his Lone Star twang uncannily resemble ex-Governor and former presidential candidate Rick Perry?) There is, however, a moment of brief, intense emotionality in Everest that’s as haunting as the ordeal itself. A phone call between Rob Hall (Clarke), the self-sacrificing expedition guide trapped on a ledge near the top of the mountain, and his pregnant wife (Knightley) thousands of miles away could have played like a third-act cliche, but it’s truly heartbreaking as she urges her slowly dying husband to keep moving so he may be rescued. It’s a sobering, hopeful expression of love in a movie wracked by so much pain.