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Stay or Split?: A Review of The Mountain Between Us


The Mountain Between Us (2017), a $35-million film releasing this weekend, pits humans against nature—both externally and internally—to probe the meaning of faithfulness. The acting and cinematography push this simple story beyond woman-going-to-her-wedding meets mysteriously-married-man. When things turn existentially dire, the questions pivot around survival and provoke reflection on the future of humanity. In fact, this novel turned film prompts some allegorically-layered wildness: imagine the hero of The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) or the duo in book one of Spenser’s Faerie Queene (1590) climbing up Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to save us from our growing flirtations with apocalypse—natural and manmade. Perhaps that seems like a stretch to get all this from characters played by Kate Winslet and Idris Elba—but the Palestinian filmmaker, Hany Abu-Assad, seems to invite, and definitely echo, the epic.

The plot, very simply, centers on two people, a male surgeon and a female photojournalist, who survive the crash of a tiny plane and face a series of existential questions that posit their individual survival against the help or harm of the other. Underlying that humanistic question of faithfulness as preservative or hinderance lies a little twist on the classic Hollywood tension between their intimate time together vis-a-vis their already existing romantic commitments.

What is obviously epic about the film is the cinematography. The four-plus minute uncut crash scene is brilliant. And if you long for winter landscapes or love looking at mountains, this movie might feed your soul. Harsh, pristine, elevated sweeping vistas provide a sense of remote, yet strangely intimate, space. It reminded me of how the landscape in great Western genre films by John Ford or George Stevens becomes a character—affecting the humans wordlessly and sometimes most powerfully. Speaking of great filmmaker techniques, Hany Abu-Assad remixes the style of Sergio Leone by zooming into his characters’ faces for extreme close-ups. Over and over I found myself staring only at noses and wrinkled brows that rivaled the depth of the land outside the frame. I can still see a 20-foot-wide Elba eye, as big as a glacial lake—twitching for seconds with psychological tension–good, bad, and ugly. Beautiful.

The (PG-13) film is based on the breezy Charles Martin book by the same name. Lots of details are changed, and the point-of-view is shifted from the novel’s first person to an objective third person directed by a camera which exposes each character’s truth and lies. The book gets psychologically deeper thanks to its perspective and voice, but the film covers that ground successfully through the subtle skill of the actors. All this raises questions about human faithfulness and what emerges when we test it.

  1. How often would you endanger your own survival to help someone you have just recently met?

  2. Does faithfulness to one reduce faithfulness to another?

  3. What happens to humans when we care for someone physically, mentally, spiritually, and socially?

At its core, the story reframes that classic sociological test—the prisoner’s dilemma. Should we cooperate for a chance at greater good or settle for an individual self-preservation that guarantees us all much less?

Of course, the film does not explicitly raise another social question, but like some interpreters of the Adam meets Eve story drawn to allegory, I found myself thinking about the openness of the human soul and even the progress of this collective body of earthlings. How do communities of faith. . .fulness survive? Should we stick together or split up to reach our goals? What is the mountain between us all?


Alexander Carpenter is a board member of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum.

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