Other than the various physical locations on display during Baltasar Kormákur’s matter-of-fact mountain climbing film Everest, the star of the show is ace cinematographer Salvatore Totino, who clearly went to huge lengths to accurately portray the harrowing conditions that the various individuals faced during that infamous summit of the world’s tallest mountain. Every single shot in this film feels authentic, if there was any CGI used its seamless, and there are some sequences that defy understanding, as it truly seemed that people’s lives were in jeopardy. You also get some vistas of overwhelming beauty, with Everest’s sense of scale never lost on the viewer; this film feels epic in scope yet intimate in the fine details. We’ve seen over the top action films set on a mountain (Vertical Limit) and there have been some great docudramas (K2 and Touching the Void come to mind), but in Everest, the verisimilitude becomes one of the key selling points, with the audience never taken out of the picture due to hokey staging or poorly constructed moments of adventure. Totino’s visceral camerawork covers the action with a great sense of danger and exhaustion, never betraying spatial geography in order to get “a money shot,” always allowing for the natural beauty of the images to take center stage over camera tricks or a generally over-stylized aesthetic. The helicopter rescue sequence towards the end is riveting, with more than one instance of “how is this being done” running through my head while watching, and the last shot of the film has a poetically haunting quality that feels very resonant in light of all that has come before it. Totino’s work is Oscar-caliber, and my hope is that his smart and incredibly composed work gets the attention it deserves.
It’s a miracle that anyone survived at all, and the film certainly reinforces the notion that the will to live is buried deep within all of us, and when put to the test, we’ll do just about as much as we can in order to keep breathing for another day. But hey, when you reach the roof of the earth, you’re bound to face some challenges, if not stare death itself directly in the face. The fact that many climbers lost their life during this particular ascent is no surprise; the details of this story were first outlined in Jon Krakauer’s bestselling novel Into Thin Air. Kormákur and his screenwriters, William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy, effectively set the stage during the brisk first act in a very traditional fashion, as we get to know the various people who have decided to pay a small fortune to risk their lives. The cast is led by an excellent Jason Clarke, one of the various group leaders who made it their job to bring people all the way to the top of whatever mountain they were scaling, but who prided himself in always bringing people safely back down. Death hangs over this film, as it does in so many man vs. nature survival dramas, and its inescapability can sometimes feel suffocating and overly sentimental. Not here. Kormákur doesn’t over-play the sudden moments where people meet their fate; they’re simply here one minute and gone the next. Yes, you get scenes were loved ones make their final phone calls, but from what I’ve read, all of this occurred in real life, making these sequences all the more emotionally accessible and relatable. Keira Knightley destroys her one “big” scene, eliciting tears because of how honest the entire moment feels, and because you know that she’s trying her hardest to be strong in the face of all but certain tragedy. Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Emily Watson, and Robin Wright are all terrific in their supporting roles, but it’s Sam Worthington who really surprises during the final act, becoming the film’s heart and soul, handling his scenes with a direct emotional intensity that keeps the film from ever becoming maudlin. Everest gets the job done with class and respect.