Everest: Mountain Madness, by David Bax
Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest is one part tense, big budget thriller and one part grim account of a real life disaster that claimed the lives of eight people in a day. As such, it’s a utilitarian adventure movie, delivering the edge-of-your-seat bang for your theater ticket buck while avoiding gilding the lily in a way that would be disrespectful to the dead. It’s a precarious path that Kormákur sets for himself but he succeeds to a respectable degree, especially once the film gets past some clumsy, Hollywoodized character development and the climbers leave base camp – some of them for good – and set off up Everest with the peak in their sights.
Everest is not, at least according to the credits, based on Jon Krakauer’s best-selling account of his own participation in the climb, Into Thin Air, but it does cover the same ground, even to the inclusion of Krakauer himself as a character, played by Michael Kelly. Though in many ways an ensemble, Jason Clarke is closest to the lead in the role of Rob Hall, the cofounder of the Adventure Consultants agency that guided many of the climbers. The impressive cast also includes Jake Gyllenhaal and Sam Worthington as other guides, Emily Watson as a base camp coordinator, Josh Brolin and John Hawkes as climbers and Robin Wright and Keira Knightley as worried wives. Kormákur and screenwriters William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy allow these characters to establish themselves during the weeks of preparation time they spend together at base camp before the final attempt to summit, a journey which we learn cost each of them $65,000.
Regrettably, some of the lines painted in this pre-ascent section are a bit broad and mostly unnecessary. Simply knowing that Hall’s wife (Knightley) is pregnant is more than enough to clarify his personal stakes. Does she really need to implore him to be back before the baby is born? Meanwhile, Brolin’s Beck Weathers is so arrogant and bloviating that the choice to introduce him in a Dole/Kemp t-shirt almost feels unfair.
The better way to define these characters would be to provide some understanding as to why they’re doing it. Kormákur punts on this for nearly half the runtime before Krakauer, the journalist, eventually has to ask. At first, the climbers struggle with the question. And then, unfortunately, so does the movie. After most deflect with macho platitudes (“Because it’s there!” “Because I can!”), Hawkes’ Doug Hansen finally opens up but the resulting monologue is tritely inspirational hokum. Eventually, Weathers will make a more heartfelt and human confession as to his motivations but by then it’s too little too late.
It’s at this point, though, that a significant change swiftly occurs. Once the stage has been set, however haphazardly, the business of the climb itself crowds out anything superfluous. Kormákur competently recrafts the film into a catalogue of dangers and processes. Threats of avalanches, high winds, hypothermia, cerebral edema and scores of other deadly potentialities are only superseded by the crucial business of one-step-at-a-time progress and survival. Crossing crevasses on wobbly ladders, using enough oxygen to stay sane without depleting reserves, clipping oneself to ropes while traversing a two-foot wide ledge at 28,000 feet; Kormákur wisely feels no need to embellish any of this. There’s a solemn dryness, a purity, to his presentation that extends to the recreations of deaths. When people do eventually fall, there’s no Wilhelm Scream or shots of the tumbling body dwindling in size as it disappears through the clouds beneath. Simply and sickeningly, they only slide out through the bottom of the frame, never to be seen again.
When these catastrophes come, they are all the more effective because Kormákur has patiently teased out the grandeur of his setting. We’ve only just begun to appreciate the beauty of the mountain before the storm barrels in and rips it away. Similarly, Everest is a slow burn of a movie but it’s one that proves to be worth it.