With its cast of Kate Winslet and Idris Elba, its original non-franchise source material, its adult concerns and utter lack of superheroics, Hany Abu-Assad’s The Mountain Between Us stands as the kind of movie that grown-ups I know often say they wish the studios would make — and then tend not to turn up for. If they do, Abu-Assad’s lost-in-the-Rockies survival drama will reward them: Here are breathtaking vistas climbed and trudged through and slid down by breathtaking movie stars. You know, if you've seen the ads, that the theme here is man (and woman and dog) vs. nature, and Abu-Assad, working from Chris Weitz and J. Mills Goodloe's adaptation of Charles Martin's novel, wrings welcome suspense right up to the end from the questions that you probably wondered while watching the trailer. My parents have pressed me on them ever since they heard I was reviewing the movie: Will Elba's and Winslet's characters live? Will the dog? (A corollary: They won’t eat the dog, will they?) And, most pressing of all, according to the emotional logic of studio movies, where the heart soars on even as the body perishes: Is this a romance?
I'll warn you before I spoil any of those. First, though, the basics: The film finds strangers Alex (Winslet) and Ben (Elba) teaming up to charter a small plane to get out of Idaho before a storm hits; both characters have money and their own urgent reasons not to be laid over. But then, in one of those showy yet familiar whirligig one-shot scenes, the kind where people who think too much about movies wonder, "When will they cut? Did they just hide an edit in that pan?" rather than, "I am wholly engrossed in the action on the screen," the plane goes down on a mountain peak, killing the pilot and jacking up Alex’s leg.
With the pilot's Lab retriever, perhaps this year's most adorable movie character, the survivors must survive. They build fire, ration their food, become incidentally intimate in what’s left of the plane — tending wounds, helping each other pee — while not quite connecting. Ben, a neurosurgeon, always seems to be holding back some crucial information about his wife back home, while Alex worries that in her last phone call she didn't tell her fiance she loved him. She also, in her rush to secure a flight, didn't tell that fiance about the charter plane — somewhat implausibly, nobody at the airport or with the FAA knows our heroes are out there.
The first half of the film finds the duo and the dog waiting for rescue and eventually fighting over whether they should be waiting at all. That conflict gets delineated according to strict screenplay schismatics: Photojournalist Alex is a risk taker; surgeon Ben is exceedingly cautious, due to backstory reasons that get doled out as stingily as a miser’s last nickels. Still, Abu-Assad never mistakes, as other filmmakers might, traumatic life-or-death experiences for an opportunity for lesson learning, though the script at times seems to be listing that way. Despite some frightening (and effective) scenes of slippery slopes and aggravated wildlife, the film’s heart lies in watching these characters discover in themselves and each other the will to press on even.
Too bad, then, that those characters are so flatly conceived. Neither performer ever fully alchemizes the collection of traits and lines they've been given into a convincing or compelling individual person. The early scenes of hard decision-making play as schematic debates between rigid philosophical perspectives, not as desperate people talking through their situation. It's full days before Ben and Alex first erupt into shouting at each other, but the fight doesn't seem to build up out of the characters themselves; it seems willed by the screenwriters to set up the film's next sequences.
But the situation is elemental; the leads don't have to be interesting individuals to move us. What's moving here is their humanity itself, their slow hobbled trek down a mountain, the way they look out for and support each other without mentioning that they’re doing it, the way nobody even has to ask, "Should we bring the dog?" It's in their physical struggles that Alex and Ben become compelling.
And then it's in their — well, here's where I must warn you that I'm about to divulge, after this paragraph break, whether The Mountain Between Us is the love story that you might hope it is, whether if, all these years after The Bodyguard, a studio will again let black and white leads fall for each other in a wide-release film whose theme is not explicitly race.
OK. The best scene in The Mountain Between Us has no mountain, blizzard or dog. Late in the film, exhausted and starving, holed up in an abandoned cabin, Alex and Ben have a fight and then embrace. Then, as they pull away, Ben kisses her, lightly, on the mouth. Then he does pull away, as she presses her lips toward him. Hesitantly, tremblingly, they nudge toward and away from each other, life kindling in them both. At last their lips meet, and then they tear at each other’s clothes. The PG-13 hookup that follows is more conventional than the buildup, but still moving. For a moment, we seem to be watching Alex and Ben, not Winslet and Elba playing Alex and Bob.