“The mountain has the last word,” one of the characters utters early on in Baltasar Kormákur’s mountain-climbing drama. The remainder of this riveting film goes to painstaking lengths to detail how true that statement is.
Everest is a stark, non-nonsense account of the ill-fated 1996 expedition that has been previously told through numerous non-fiction novels and films; for many viewers, the tragic outcome will already be known.
That puts the film in unique company: among recent films, the closest comparison might be The Perfect Storm or All is Lost. These are not necessarily tales of survival, or man vs. nature, but something more existential where the ultimate fate of its characters is almost an afterthought; throughout Everest, the movie I was most reminded of was Wages of Fear (and its remake, Sorcerer).
An opening scrawl gives us the background of the mountain: in the 40 years after Edmund Hillary became the first explorer to summit Everest in 1953, one in four climbers died trying to match his feat. That number greatly improved in the 1990s, however, when companies like Adventure Consultants began leading their own guided expeditions.
The founder of Adventure Consultants was Rob Hall, here portrayed by Jason Clarke as a dedicated and practical leader. In May of 1996, Hall led an expedition to the summit of Everest that including Texan Beck Weathers (played by Josh Brolin), postman Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), and Japanese climber Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), who became the second Japanese woman to reach the world’s Seven Summits.
Almost every role here is filled with a recognizable face: Hall’s wife, seen (mostly) only during phone calls is played by Keira Knightley, Robin Wright plays Weather’s wife back home, and at base camp guiding the expedition are characters played by Emily Watson, Elizabeth Debicki (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), and Sam Worthington. Thomas M. Wright and Martin Henderson are Adventure Consultants guides Mike Groom and Harold Harris, respectively.
After discovering that four separate tour groups are attempting a summit on the same day, Hall arranges to cooperate with Mountain Madness founder Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his team, including guide Anatoli Boukreev (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson). Their summit included the infamous journey of NYC socialite Sandy Hill Pittman (Vanessa Kirby) briefly glimpsed here on a satellite phone or being hauled up the mountain by a Sherpa.
Plotwise, there isn’t much to say about Everest: this is the story of a group of people who go up a mountain, and the relatively simplistic narrative eschews Hollywood’s dramatic conventions along with most familiar mountain climbing tropes.
Instead, this is probably the most realistic mountain climbing movie that Hollywood has produced (not that there’s much to choose from – Vertical Limit? K2?) Once it gets going, it’s absolutely riveting in its portrayal of the extreme conditions that these men (and women) face, and overwhelmingly single-minded in its message: that in the end, nature always wins.
Icelandic director Kormákur previously made the Mark Wahlberg actioners 2 Guns and Contraband after making a name for himself on the festival circuit with films like Jar City and 101 Reykjavik. But Everest is in an entirely different class: the matter-of-fact storytelling and almost fatalistic mentality here might limit its appeal, but anyone looking for a realistic account of this story that puts you up there on the mountain is advised to take a look.
The expedition was previously documented by Krakauer (who also wrote, among other novels, Into the Wild) in his book Into Thin Air. That recollection caused some minor controversy, especially with Boukreev, who penned his own novel in response.
I was surprised to see the film take a somewhat negative stance towards Krakauer, and even (subtly) seems to implicate him in the disaster.
In one scene, he asks to be let ahead of the group after a logjam because he’s low on oxygen (okay, fine); but then, on the way back down, he has an argument with Harold about the oxygen levels in the “full” tanks that have been stashed, which now all seem to be empty; is the film implying that Krakauer has swapped out his tank for one of those stashed?
Later on, Anatoli requests some help to go back and rescue those stranded; Krakauer replies that he can’t assist because he has snow blindness. But the film never shows us his POV, which it does for Beck, who really is suffering from snow blindness. At the end, he apologizes to Watson’s Helen (“I am so sorry”), which could be taken as a general ‘sorry for your loss’ or something… more personal.
But the Krakauer portrayal is a very minor aside in this entirely gripping, first-class presentation. Everest hasn’t won over critics or audiences so far, but unlike other true-story accounts that have been given the Hollywood treatment, this is exactly how this movie should have been done.
Despite the cast, at the end of the movie it’s the mountain that has (rightfully) made the biggest impression. Everest is imposing, awe-inspiring, and terrifying; it’s the stuff of nightmares and the most irrational of dreams.