Cinema has a love affair with mental illness. A shut-in with mommy issues. An insurance assessor with dissociative identity disorder. A Nobel-winning mathematician suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. And then there are those who decide to climb Mt. Everest. Certainly more daunting a lifelong pursuit than selling soap or managing a hotel, the prospect of summiting 9,000 meters above Earth’s surface attracts a rare breed of thrill-seeker, mountaineers willing to put their life or “merely” their lungs and limbs on the line against suffocating elevation and Nepalese snowstorms. In terms of mental disorders, scaling the tallest point on the planet can be filed under “psychosis.”
Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest depicts two such climbing expeditions, albeit without recognizing the crazier elements of the venture. That’s likely because many perished in the 1996 climb up Everest, including New Zealand good guy Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and Scott Fischer’s American wild card (Jake Gyllenhaal). Kormákur presents Everest as a noble challenge rather than an ultimate adrenaline rush for postmen with too much time on their hands (John Hawkes) or enthusiasts looking to make one final climb (Josh Brolin). Biographies aside, the mountain itself is the focus, with circling helicopter shots buttressed by Dario Marianelli’s subtly militaristic main theme (“The Call“). With thudding percussion driving soft horn tones and an underbelly of low strings, Marianelli’s theme has an unqualified nobility to its steady pacing, not unlike what might play behind the final moments in Saving Private Ryan.
“Setting Off From Kathmandu” adds a layer to “The Call” with a solo violin. This time, the cue swirls into the ether with violin, foretelling the expedition’s now inevitable loss of life. This is Everest‘s core musical language, alternating between and oftentimes straddling reverence and melancholy. Apart from the impossible endurance and fortitude it requires, Kormákur does nothing to qualify what makes this particular climb such a noble enterprise. Neither does Marianelli as he punches up planning meetings and helicopter wide shots with the majestic martyrdom of Martin O’Donnell’s early Halo music. Like the Xbox franchise, the result in Everest is something similar: an acknowledgment of a threat that bears little resemblance to everyday reality.
Marianelli picks apart many of these elements. “A Close Shave” introduces his primary theme with English soprano Melanie Pappenheim, drawing out an already drawn out theme. Towards the end, “Beck Gets Up” strips away everything but the rusty violin as Josh Brolin’s Texas family man, frostbitten and delirious, hallucinates himself back down the mountainside with the imagined help of his wife and children. “Starting the Ascent” creates a standout piano ostinato as a helpless Keira Knightley wastes her talents about her husband. Blasé pregnancy hopes and all, there are attempts at character building here, but everything is buried under the mountain’s majesty. For the first time in a long time, the crazy people aren’t the cinema’s main attraction.