When the director Rick Alverson was 5 years old, his family moved from Green River, Wyoming, to Fort McMurray, in Alberta, Canada. Alverson’s father worked for the Bechtel Corporation, which was then in the early stages of developing the Athabasca tar sands. Fort McMurray was a lonely outpost, frontierland with hardly any town to speak of. To Alverson, it seemed always to be winter there. The family lived in a trailer park where Bechtel housed employees. Late one night, a Ford Mustang smashed into their mobile home. Alverson woke to find LEGOs and Lincoln Logs flying from his closet. He walked down the hallway, which was now tilted, to see that the front of the trailer had been shorn away. The driver had punctured his windshield. “He wasn’t there anymore,” Alverson recalled recently. “But you could see the imprint of his head. It was covered in blood.” An unfamiliar smell hung in the air. As a teenager, Alverson would identify the odor as Jim Beam. He has declined to drink it ever since.
The Fort McMurray incident is one of two memories from Alverson’s childhood that surfaced repeatedly while he was working on his fifth feature film, The Mountain, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September, and which will open in U.S. theaters next week. “It’s strange,” he said. “You’re 46 years old, and you realize that these events are informing your relationship with the world. They come back to you.” The accident destroyed the part of the trailer where the Alversons had gathered to watch television. “The exposure to uncontrolled events like that—in the living room, where at the end of the day, the idea of peace resides—it frames something.”
With the 2012 release of his third film, The Comedy, the not-very-comedic work for which he is perhaps best known, Alverson acquired an enduring reputation for confrontation, antagonism, and all-purpose troublemaking. The New York Times suggested that The Comedy—a portrait of a wealthy, nihilistic hipster—was homophobic and misogynistic. Writing for The Boston Globe, the critic Wesley Morris accused it of “feel-good racism.”
But the film’s fiercest opponents seemed bothered mostly by its failure to satisfy convention: a refusal to punish bad behavior—or even to identify bad behavior as such—and evident antipathy toward narrative, resolution. Hipper places like Grantland, Chicago Reader, and The Oregonian published nuanced appreciations, and Alverson’s 2015 follow-up, Entertainment, which depicts a depressive comic on a tour of scuzzy Western dive bars, earned rave, if often shell-shocked reviews. Arguably his grimmest work, Entertainment doubled down on The Comedy’s subversions, establishing Alverson firmly as one of independent film’s most uncompromising voices. In an era when even app designers claim the title of “storyteller,” Alverson is an iconoclast: an auteur openly suspicious of the very idea of story.
With a budget of just a few million dollars, much of it provided by Vice Media, The Mountain is by far Alverson’s best-financed film to date. In a concession to producers, he wrote his first true script for the project—a departure from the virtually dialogue-free treatments that scaffolded his earlier films. Set in the mid-20th century, The Mountain follows a teenage photographer from the East Coast, where he falls in with a doctor modeled on the infamous lobotomist Walter Freeman, to California, where the New Age movement is taking shape. In a September 2017 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Jeff Goldblum, who’d signed on to play the doctor, described the script in magisterial terms. “It reminds me in tone of P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood or The Master,” he said. “Metaphorical critiques of the American psyche, in the vein of Death of a Salesman.”
On a raw, drizzly morning several weeks later, Alverson was in New Rochelle, New York, where he had commandeered an elementary school that dates to 1894 to shoot a handful of scenes from the second half of the film. Out of what he calls a sense of “economic duty,” Alverson follows a vegan diet. He is tall and slender, with a narrow face, deep-set eyes, a woodsman’s beard, and longish swept-back hair turning from brown to gray. He favors earth-toned chinos, plaid flannel jackets, and sensible shoes worn beyond their natural lifespan. The overall effect can suggest a 19th-century miner, or the keeper of a backcountry still.
In a hallway on the second floor of the building, a crew of fatigued but cheerful 20-somethings in Bushwickian garb—beanies, ironic spectacles, high-waisted jeans—prepared for the day’s first scenes. Two used a ladder to adjust overhead lighting. At Alverson’s direction, they removed a fluorescent tube here, wrapped a fixture in brightness-dampening fabric there. “That band of darkness—isn’t that in keeping with our scene?” he said, indicating. “And that band of light. Maybe just take one bulb out?” With walls tiled in mustard yellow and seafoam-painted doors, the corridor felt dated and institutional; the school would serve as a proxy for an asylum on the West Coast, one of the last stops made by Dr. Wallace Fiennes—the Freeman character—and Andy, the photographer, en route to Mt. Shasta, a northern California peak with a long association with spiritualists and mystics.
Tye Sheridan, the 22-year-old actor playing Andy—whose face would soon appear on posters advertising his starring role in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One—stood near Alverson, engaging a crewmember in a technical conversation about photography. Goldblum wandered onto set, costumed in woolen trousers and carrying a slim attache and overcoat. The virtuoso French actor Denis Lavant lay recumbent on a wooden bench, trailing fingers on the tile floor as if stippling the surface of water from a canoe. In The Mountain, he plays the father of Susan, a teenage girl acted by Hannah Gross, who becomes Andy’s lover and a patient of Dr. Fiennes.
Alverson is skeptical that people ever communicate meaningfully through speech, and the scarcity of dialogue in the first two-thirds of The Mountain approaches famine. Andy’s father, a boorish figure skating coach—played by an unsettling Udo Kier—dies in the film’s opening scenes; his mother has been institutionalized. After meeting Andy at a garage sale, Fiennes commissions him to take promotional photographs of his surgeries. Andy serves as the audience’s avatar for much of the film, and he says virtually nothing. Downcast, unsure of himself—of his body, how it corresponds to his surroundings—he is forever peering at the objects and people in his environment, trying, apparently, to make sense of them.
At the school, Alverson’s direction attended assiduously to physicality. He shot Sheridan waiting on a bench, contorting his legs and ankles into unnatural positions. “That’s nice,” he said. “It looks uncomfortable.” In another scene, Sheridan stood at the window of a closed door, his character transfixed by goings-on inside. “Lean in,” Alverson said. “So that the light touches your face.” Filming a tussle over a suitcase between Susan and a hospital orderly, he said, “Go forward, go forward, as if trying to will a baseball foul or fair.” No two takes of a meeting between Fiennes and Susan’s father featured the same dialogue. But Alverson appeared oblivious, focusing instead on the slant of Goldblum’s shoulders, the way Lavant rose from his seat. He seemed almost to be gathering portraits, as if for collage, or a very unusual flipbook.
“Content comes after form,” Alverson said between takes. “I’m concerned with intonation, body language, blocking. Once you begin to focus on those elements, you can become consumed by minutiae—something happening in the corner of a frame, a single lighting fixture.”
The crew moved upstairs, into a classroom that had been outfitted, with typewriters and filing cabinets, as a hospital administrator’s office. By the time Fiennes and Andy reach the West Coast, the doctor’s methods have attracted intense scrutiny, as early antipsychotic drugs reach the market. At the asylum, he is crestfallen to learn that he won’t be allowed to operate there. Through the classroom blinds, the sky was going orange and purple. As sundown approached, Goldblum and Max Baker, as the hospital administrator, hurried through rehearsals.
“But you invited me here,” Goldblum said, looking mystified.
“I’m sorry,” Baker said, pushing back his chair. “I don’t think we did.”
Uncharacteristically, Alverson suggested adding dialogue. “You know what would be lovely, Jeff?” he said. “I think an ‘I don’t understand,’ would be really powerful there.”
Goldblum spoke softly to himself, testing the emotional elasticity of the phrase. “I don’t understand,” he said. “I don’t understand. I don’t understand.”
In the early 1980s, the Alversons bought a new house on a cul-de-sac in a Philadelphia suburb. Alverson’s father, who frequently changed roles at Bechtel, had been assigned to work at a nuclear power plant nearby. The family home stood a few blocks from Norristown State Hospital. Formerly known as the State Lunatic Hospital, the facility was in the midst of deinstitutionalization—the process of releasing patients into local communities that substantially emptied the country’s many large, troubled asylums between the late 1960s and the ’90s.
In Alberta, for want of alternative social opportunities, Alverson’s mother had become president of an ice rink, and by the time he was a teenager, her son was spending six hours a day at figure skating practice. “I came to consciousness on the ice,” Alverson told me. “It was the environment that I was reared in.” The sport encouraged a natural inclination toward reticence. “It was a very solitary thing, an almost surreal existence. I would leave school at noon and be [at the rink] until 7 o’clock at night.” The family grew invested in his promise; they believed he could be a champion, even an Olympian. It was Alverson’s first experience of a classically American narrative that he has since spent great energy deconstructing on film: a hero with limitless potential, whose path to glory need have few costs save his own sweat. But the materiality of the sport thrilled him. “I loved the act,” he said. “I loved the tactile nature of skating, understanding the way your body interfaces with something like ice and a blade.”
For years, the other constants in Alverson’s life were religion and television. He and his older sister Kathryn attended conservative Catholic schools and Alverson found the curriculum enthralling. For a time, he aspired to be a priest. Alverson’s father, a stoic Navy veteran, had been raised by a single mother during the Depression. Entry into middle-class life brought him deep relief. In the evenings, he and Alverson watched sitcoms together: Growing Pains, Family Ties, Webster, M.A.S.H. The routine left no time for studying, and Alverson did poorly in school.
Like many youthful believers, Alverson abandoned religion as a teenager. Around the same time, he stopped watching TV. He’d never had many friends, and as he prepared for college, he found himself, suddenly, frightfully ill-equipped to evaluate the world around him. Alverson suspected that the sitcoms he’d absorbed for so many years were warping his perceptions. He sensed now that reality was far messier than the pat narratives that had substantially formed his worldview—that he likely had no real understanding of something as basic as the relationship between his mother and father. “It was this problem of believing that there were concrete shapes and rules,” Alverson said. When he saw their falseness—that they did not correspond to the natural world—he became “terrified of the nebulous uncertainties around them.”
On a warm October night in 2017, I met Alverson at 68 Jay Street Bar, a pub with barrel-vaulted brick ceilings in the DUMBO neighborhood of Brooklyn. He had spent the day scouting locations upstate, where shooting on The Mountain would soon begin. In a nearby office crazed with props, mockups, and photos, a crew of editors and assistants had been making the sort of frantic 11th-hour preparations that are practically de rigueur in independent film. Alverson wore a hooded sweatshirt zipped to the top tooth and ordered draft beer. I missed him when I walked in, so poorly lit was the table at which he’d chosen to sit. “I’m here,” he said. “Lurking in the shadows where I usually am.”
Photos tend to capture Alverson looking vaguely haunted, gazing into the faraway in the style of retired executioners and veterans of trench warfare. On a recent Instagram post, a shot showing him as a grinning adolescent, a friend commented, “Documenting the first and last time Rick smiled.” Dense and spiky, his films evince a troubled intelligence that could be mistaken for misanthropy. Eddy Moretti, until recently the chief creative officer at Vice Media, told me that although they had mutual friends, he was nervous to meet Alverson: “I had created this false mythology. I had in my mind that he was an ornery motherfucker.” In fact, Alverson is unfailingly kind, with a high-pitched laugh activated by a sense of humor by turns morbid and self-deprecating. Warm in a way that is at once solicitous and retiring, he would make a fine grade school art teacher.
Even if he wanted it, though, that job would be unavailable to him. In high school, Alverson became a voracious reader—of texts not assigned in class. After a fling with the beats, he fell for the language poets, an avant garde clique that emphasized the way that form constructs meaning. He hoped to go to SUNY Buffalo, where some star practitioners taught, but he didn’t have the grades, and settled for film school at NYU. At downtown theaters like Film Forum and Anthology Film Archives, he saw movies by Tarkovsky, Herzog, and Cassavetes. Stalker was especially transformative. “Because of the lack of information and ambiguities, it creates a restlessness in the viewer,” he has said. “That planted a seed.”
In a studio not far from the bar, Alverson made his first movie, a 16-millimeter short that he bashfully describes as Bergmanian. The studio had been rented by Colm O’Leary, one of several Irish expats whom Alverson befriended while working at Cafe Orlin, a now-defunct East Village artists’ hub. He has been a cowriter on most of Alverson’s films and has acted in several of them, including the first. “It had the most extraordinarily convoluted language you can ever imagine,” O’Leary told me, chuckling. “There were sentences that neither you nor I have ever heard anyone use.” The plot was somewhat thin. “It was about me and his sister in bed in our underwear, bemoaning our lot in some not very well outlined crisis.”
Alverson dropped out of NYU soon thereafter, unhappy with the creative compromises and fiscal wrangling that the process of getting films made would entail. For years, he worked as a cook and a carpenter, recording and performing with the indie band Spokane in his spare time. Arranging financing for The Mountain had been arduous, plunging Alverson into periods of depression and encouraging him to consider returning to blue-collar work. “You would think it’d get easier, but it never does,” he said, sipping his beer. “Particularly if you operate outside of the standard assembly-line approach to filmmaking.”
Following Entertainment, The Mountain was not even necessarily the film he’d set out to make. “People found this to be the most palatable of my projects,” he told me on another occasion. More so, for instance, than The Well-Dressed Man, a tale about the origins of the Ku Klux Klan that Alverson has been trying to get produced for roughly a decade. The film’s saleability has been hobbled by its treatment of the past: a refusal to provide any clear rooting interest, in the form of an obviously righteous protagonist, or to draw a reassuring curtain on the Reconstruction era.
“I knew that to make a movie about a Klansman, there couldn’t be any moral reckoning, because there wasn’t a moral reckoning in history,” Alverson said. “Instead there was a stealthy burying of certain social gestures.” Less than two months before our meeting in Brooklyn, the Confederate flag–bedecked Unite the Right rally, in Charlottesville, Virginia, had resulted in the murder of a counterprotestor. Donald Trump famously announced that there were “very fine people on both sides.” Yet to examine how white supremacy had been embedded in American life, even as it was largely suppressed by the pop cultural record, would have confounded audience expectations for historical narratives: optimism, closure, a little romance. “Nobody would finance the film because it seemed implausible to producers that you would have a Klansman character not be reckoned with by the moral voice of the author,” Alverson said. To deny liberalism the last word, it seemed to Alverson, might have been considered irresponsible, “problematic.”
Alverson saw Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s gonzo 2012 drama about a former slave’s quest to free his wife from a Mississippi plantation, in a theater not far from his home in Richmond, Virginia. He has lived there since 1994, when he left Brooklyn to be nearer to a friend who was battling addiction, in the historic neighborhood of Church Hill. Currently abuzz with construction noise emanating from the homes of upwardly mobile farm-to-table enthusiasts, the area was until recently overwhelmingly poor and black. “I saw more violence than I ever did in New York,” Alverson said of his early years in Church Hill. “There were a lot of vacant structures, a lot of arson.” He was struck by the city’s many Confederate monuments—Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis—and by the absence of a museum marking the nation’s second-largest slave market, which once had a large footprint downtown.
Alverson admires Tarantino. Along with Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson, he calls him “one of the last master craftsmen” in film. And like Tarantino’s previous movie, Inglourious Basterds, about a crack Army unit of scalp-taking Jewish Nazi hunters, Django was a definite accomplishment, humming with witty dialogue and winning performances from Hollywood’s first tier: Foxx, DiCaprio, Waltz. The results were wildly entertaining and Alverson’s fellow theatergoers, most of them young and black, cheered during the movie. But also like Basterds, Django revolved around transmuting a complex segment of history into a cartoonish revenge fantasy. Alverson found it troubling—an apotheosis of the most dangerous elements of current cinema.
“The fantasy of watching retribution played out, letting the audience feel liberated from the gravity of history—it’s criminal,” he said. To believe that we aren’t vulnerable in darkened theaters, to think that what presents itself as escapism doesn’t rewire our perception of reality, Alverson says, is folly. And in the South, where history is edited to bury the sins and fortify the dominance of the white ruling class, Django’s methods were especially disturbing. “I’m sure [Tarantino is] a nice enough guy,” he said. “But he’s a cinematic war criminal, too.”
Alverson worries that he sounds pretentious in interviews. But he considers film a treacherous medium, an opportunity for multisensory manipulation, and can’t help saying so. Like a celebrity wary of flatterers, he feels alarmed by cinematic pleasure, suspicious that some harmful impulse might lurk beneath. “Rick is very opposed to entertaining people,” Dustin Guy Defa, a cowriter of The Mountain, told me. “I’m so unused to that feeling—that the filmmaker isn’t going to give me any moment to be entertained. It’s the opposite of his agenda, in many ways.”
Alverson’s first film, The Builder, about a carpenter constructing a home in the Catskills, didn’t appear until 2010, when Alverson was 39. New Jerusalem, about a veteran employed at a Virginia auto body shop, followed in 2011. Both movies were made almost literally for pocket change, with free or near-free help from Alverson’s many artistically gifted friends, including O’Leary and the actor and musician Will Oldham. The films are at once dense and uneventful, full of long silences and men toiling in sunlight. Their protagonists seem to be trying, through the rituals of labor, to recover from trauma; it’s unclear what kind. The Comedy marks a stark departure. Brimming with provocation—discussions of homeless men’s genitals; the desecration of a church—it struck some critics as regressive. “But it was actually a gargantuan leap in maturity!” Alverson said. “The earlier films were projections of how I wanted to be seen in the world. The Comedy was a conversation with ideas, the audience, the form—with things outside myself.”
Shot mostly in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the film tracks a group of trustafarian white men in their mid-30s and early 40s. They play whiffle ball—and drink. They cruise on bikes—and drink. They go to parties and bars and brunch. They don’t appear to work. Alverson built the cast around a group of friends and comic collaborators: Gregg Turkington, best known for his stand-up alter ego Neil Hamburger; Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, the duo behind, among others, the idiosyncratic Adult Swim series Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! The film’s antihero, Swanson—a deck shoe–wearing Heidecker—and his friends share a cynical sense of humor that pushes irony to its limits, often belittling the unsuspecting civilians in their path; at one point, Swanson says, “I rape anything I can get my hands on.”
“To me, it’s almost a horror film,” Alverson said: a depiction of privilege run amok, of the consequences of the boundless choice and diminished responsibility that come with inherited wealth. When it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, roughly a third of the audience walked out. Two moments proved especially repellent: a scene in which Swanson, in bed with a young woman, watches her have a seizure, interested but affectless, as if observing something in an aquarium; a scene at a Harlem bar, where Swanson tells a group of African American men, “I want some black ass.” A.O. Scott castigated Alverson for lacking “critical distance.” But the cast and crew were perplexed. “Rick’s interested in not handing anything to an audience, or resolving anything,” Heidecker said. “We felt that it wasn’t our responsibility.”
Swanson’s brethren, many of them holders of C-suite and political offices, have since become the subject of a fraught national conversation, and The Comedy now looks like a missive ahead of its time. But the film’s reception was instructive. Alverson wanted his work to be seen, in full, and he began reevaluating devices he’d previously avoided: metaphor, linearity, cliché. He had considered them deceptive—means of obscuring the world as it is. Really, he saw, they were tools. He could use them to suck audiences in, fielding familiar elements to “trap the viewer in the film.” The ploy evoked Joan Didion, whose best trick was to use the seductions of literature to inform readers that most every story they’d ever read was false, and probably malignant.
Like Didion, Alverson is fascinated by the American West, where Entertainment is set. In the film, Turkington plays a comedian whose stand-up persona closely resembles Neil Hamburger. He’s reached middle age with little to show for it. Audiences boo him, pick fights. He sleeps in divey motels. From a series of increasingly unhinged voicemails he leaves his daughter, it’s apparent that he has sacrificed their relationship to the pursuit of an unrealistic dream. But he’s managed to book a high-end gig in California, on which he stakes the resurrection of his career.
“People read cinema as they do literature,” Alverson told me. “So I loaded Entertainment with those raw materials: the desert as a place of spiritual reckoning, the unattainable female presence, the sad clown.” Despite slippages into surreality—a violent birth on the floor of a public restroom, Shining-like apparitions of Turkington as a rhinestone cowboy—the film adopts a conventional plot, as a broken man goes on a redemptive quest. Alverson was pleased, if flummoxed by Entertainment’s near uniformly laudatory reviews. (The Times: “There’s a strange nobility to this downward odyssey.”) By agreeing to follow certain formal rules, it seemed, he could lure larger audiences into absorbing subversive material. This, too, was instructive. “I feel like [viewers] need to be subjected to something,” he said. “It’s almost like a cat and mouse game.”
With help from friends, Alverson eventually built a two-story home in Church Hill, using as a model a 19th-century Federal-style house a few blocks away. Vacant at the time, the house lacked a front door. At night, Alverson would creep in to take measurements. The resultant copy is bright and airy, with handsome hardwood floors and cabinets, a faint smell of lumber.
When I arrived one afternoon in early 2018, about six weeks after shooting wrapped on The Mountain, Alverson was brewing coffee in a battered metal pot. Troughs of fatigue underlined his eyes. Billy Bragg was singing “There Is Power in the Union” on NPR. The station had recently given strong reviews to Come and See, a moving, ethereal folk album that Alverson recorded with his longtime partner, Emilie Rex, a writer and consultant, as Lean Year. The project provided Alverson a creative outlet while he sought funding for The Mountain. But now he was experiencing post–film production malaise. “You’re surrounded by people for months,” he said. “And then the mechanics of this event evaporate and you’re left alone with your psyche.”
In the living room, Alverson sat cross-legged on a vintage rolling chair. Columns of books rose behind him from the floor. The new Harper’s lay on a coffee table, partially obscured by Little Man, Alverson’s fat, black cat.
Alverson describes his three most recent films as an informal trilogy devoted to critiquing “American Utopianism”: a bent in the national ethos that regards the pursuit of perfection as an unalloyed virtue. “It’s disconnected with the boundaries of the world,” he once told me. “That disconnect is at the root of a lot of our problems.” On film, “the arc of male aspiration” has often lent backbone to the theme, a trope Alverson began exploring explicitly in Entertainment. But Walter Freeman, the neurologist on whom Goldblum’s Dr. Fiennes is based, worked much larger stages than Turkington’s comedian, overseeing some 3,500 lobotomies during his career and flogging the procedure to treat everything from anxiety to suicidal thoughts.
Like modern Silicon Valley innovators who’ve lately seen their popularity wane, Freeman seemed at first to offer a timely panacea: a salve for the half-million patients confined in U.S. asylums. Despite having been shaped by racial and sexual repression and recently convulsed by two world wars, Americans yearned to see themselves in Norman Rockwell’s sunniest illustrations. The lobotomy promised to smooth the edges, and for a time, Freeman was a star.
The Mountain picks up years later, as evidence mounts of the costs of the doctor’s success: incontinence, catatonia, death. As Freeman did, Fiennes uses an icepick-like instrument to hammer at the brain through patients’ eye sockets, ostensibly severing pesky neural pathways. Drunk and distraught, he rereads old letters from grateful patients and families, as if to convince himself of the first version of his story, in which he played the hero.
The movie’s road trip mirrors one Freeman made from Washington, D.C., to California in the mid-’50s, while also providing Alverson a familiar narrative shape to use as a snare. Ditto the coming-of-age associations that attach to Andy, the photographer. Andy seems at first to be a kind of mentee, taken under Fiennes’s sympathetic wing, but he identifies increasingly with the doctor’s patients, and in a move for which he might fairly be accused of heavy-handedness, Alverson neutralizes Andy’s point of view near the film’s end, leaving the audience in the hands of a deranged New Age mystic much given to raving, French-English soliloquies.
“I wouldn’t have been able to make films without having been a carpenter first,” Alverson said. “The mistakes that you make in conception come back to haunt you.” Filmed in loose, winding style, The Comedy reflects Swanson’s beer-bellied aimlessness, while Entertainment’s cameras stare unmoving on widescreen vistas of sun-pummeled desert. By comparison, The Mountain is constricted, hemmed by 4x3 borders in the mode of ur-television. Within these borders, there are others: windshields and windows, telescoping door frames. Fiennes says, “I like pictures.” Andy says, “I take pictures.” On a wooden TV, he watches Perry Como sing “Home on the Range.” Again and again, Alverson reminds the audience that what they’re seeing is not nature, not life. Of a mass-produced painting, Denis Lavant shouts, “That’s not a mountain, it’s a picture!”
After dark, Alverson led me upstairs, into a spare room furnished with a threadbare rug and a bed made of carved sandalwood. He sat at an antique desk, switched on a lamp, and displayed a film editing program on a 22-inch monitor. A graph-ruled notebook was marked in blue ink with a roster of scenes from The Mountain, question marks beside them denoting editorial flux. Alverson placed a Stella Artois beside it and played some sequences he’d been working on: an overhead shot of a figure skater, skirt flared as she twirls, like a music box ballerina, in slow motion; Fiennes at the yard sale where he meets Andy; a gothic asylum in autumn; a group of women, sitting and standing in skirts and sweaters, in an ice rink locker room.
The pigments were washed out, the stagings stark and fastidious. Dark places emitted a rich velveteen glow. The effect was at once disquieting and absorbing. “I’m sort of obsessed with the idea of moving back and forth across the threshold of the screen,” Alverson said, describing the intended experience of the audience. “Into submersion, where there’s no membrane between you and the [on-screen] event—when you feel completely intoxicated—and then where you’re pulled out of the thing. You’re aware of your body. You’re aware of the frame. You’re aware of the room.” Clicking through images, he said proudly, “We lit them like Vermeers.”
Spokane, Alverson’s indie band, played extraordinarily quiet, delicate music. At the clubs where they performed, ambient noise often drowned them out. Robert Donne, a member of the band, laughed at the memory. “There are a number of ways to work around that,” he said. “But Rick’s idea was to play even quieter. It didn’t work. But he was uncompromising—it was almost like reverse punk rock.”
Alverson’s stubbornness sometimes frustrates his collaborators. “Rick wants the very minimum amount of information you can use and still have the story operate,” Dustin Guy Defa, a cowriter of The Mountain, told me. “He’s to the extreme. I would push and say, this information is absolutely needed—how characters got from one place to another, or why they’re in a place they’re in—otherwise the audience will not understand what’s going on at all.” Introductory scenes, with their requisite exposition, can be especially vexing. “It drives me crazy when an event is described verbally, or when characters tell me what they’re thinking,” Alverson said. Yet failing to sufficiently orient the audience risked compromising the film’s architecture. As ever, part of the challenge was that the reality of shooting hadn’t born out Alverson’s blueprint. The world—schedules, budgets, the peculiarities of filming locales, weather—had intruded.
Tye Sheridan, who also appeared in Entertainment, told me that more than other directors, Alverson embraces the vagaries endemic to most film sets. “On The Mountain, we were moving constantly, like six locations every day,” he said, exaggerating slightly. “We had to cut scenes. There was a scene where the actor couldn’t deliver, and it spun out and became something entirely different. But Rick is quick on his feet. He was able to make it work.” A scene I had observed in New Rochelle called for Sheridan to toss a bench against a wall. But a bench of suitable dimensions could not be found, and Alverson sent crew members scurrying around the building, collecting wooden chairs to use instead. Sheridan would smash them—all of them—and since there were no extras, he would have to nail it in one take. In Alverson’s edit, the scene, near the film’s climax, was utterly arresting, an explosion of emotion made visceral by friction between the script and the conditions of the shoot. So far, he said, it had been the easiest scene in the film to cut.
At a test screening in Manhattan, in February 2018, the audience, generally receptive, found The Mountain’s early scenes perplexing, and Alverson consented to a decidedly un-arty compromise: scene-setting dialogue, heard in voice-over during the opening sequence. Following its Venice premiere, the film’s North American rights were acquired by Kino Lorber, a high-minded distributor known for movies including Michael Haneke’s Funny Games and Yorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth. Soon thereafter, Alverson reached an arrangement with Eddy Moretti to finance his next project—a horror film set in a 12th-century convent. Despite obvious shifts in setting and genre, the project has the makings of a kind of thematic prequel to the trilogy that started with The Comedy, a fact that Alverson acknowledges with a mix of embarrassment and self-exasperation. “It’s about cycles of belief and dependency and disbelief,” he said. “The origin story of the organized patriarchal manipulation of systems.” Alverson says that he would like to move on, but his themes will not, for the moment, let him go.
The new film is to be part of the first generation of projects from Unbranded Pictures, a development and production company recently founded by Moretti, which found early success with The Report, a 2019 drama starring Adam Driver and Annette Bening that was acquired by Amazon and will be released later this year. Moretti told me, “Rick Alverson has a career with me as long as I’m financing films. In my canon, he’s an important American auteur.” Alverson is warming to the idea, growing less resistant to traditional modes of production. For the new film, he plans to work from a script outlined by a well-known novelist. “As the films get bigger and the budgets get bigger, there’s a heightened necessity of mitigating risk,” he told me this spring. “It’s a much more traditional way of working. There are certain ambiguities that don’t interest me anymore.”
But in the dim light of his Richmond editing studio, Alverson was still inching his way forward. “It’s one thing to comprehend clips and takes and scenes,” he said. “But as the thing spreads out, you realize that it has its own interests.” He was unsure how to contend with them. “When it feels formless, it can be devastating,” he said, laughing nervously. Yet to impose coherence on the material could seem artificial, coercive. “It’s a bummer to have to string it all together,” Alverson said. “I think I’ll feel better after things start falling apart a little bit more.”
When the director Rick Alverson was 11 years old, he and his father were driving home through the Philadelphia suburb to which they’d recently moved, when they came to a stop at a traffic light. Also stopped, traveling in the opposite direction, were his sister Kathryn and their mother. The family rarely dined out, and on a whim, to celebrate running into each other, they decided to go out for ice cream. At Friendly’s, Alverson and his sister tucked into sundaes. The meeting had a cinematic quality, a touch of sitcom-like serendipity that gave way to great levity. Alverson was a shy, quiet boy with few friends. But he was close to his parents. At the restaurant, he felt elated.
Afterward, the Alversons drove home in the dark to their cul-de-sac, where they found the family home blazing with light. The front door stood open, a rectangle of golden brightness. This was odd; it was not how they left things. It seemed that they’d become the victims of a burglary. The perpetrators, two men, had just escaped or been released from the mental hospital nearby. Alverson does not remember how they learned this. Perhaps the police told them, or the neighbors. After ransacking the house, the burglars had sat together for a long time on the curb.
All along, as the family sat eating ice cream, a parallel narrative had unspooled—reel from a different kind of film. The men weren’t there when they got home. Alverson does not know what became of them. Inside the house, they had switched on every light: overheads and lamps, fixtures in closets. Even the tiniest bulbs glowed. The scene suggested some pathology at work, or a piece of performance art. It was as if the burglars had been trying to ward off some great, enveloping darkness. Or, by virtue of contrast, to show that it was there.
Chris Pomorski is a writer based in Philadelphia. His work has appeared in Vanity Fair, The New York Times Magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek, and elsewhere.