East of the Mountains, 2021.
Directed by S.J. Chiro.
Starring Tom Skerritt, Mira Sorvino, Annie Gonzalez, Wally Dalton, Jule Johnson, John Paulsen, Nick Sage Palmieri, Diego Collie, Robert Fuentes, Thurman Kellogg, Paul Northcott, and Lauren Du Pree.
When retired heart surgeon Ben Givens learns that he has terminal cancer, he takes his beloved dog back to his boyhood home in Eastern Washington, determined to end his life on his own terms. Ben’s journey, though, takes an unexpected turn, and soon becomes an adventure against which he pits himself with characteristic stoicism, wit, and determination.
Reliable veteran actor Tom Skerritt doesn’t pop up much in movies lately (and no one can blame him given his age), so it’s a pleasant surprise to see him in a starring role for East of the Mountains and committed to delivering a complex, emotionally wounded performance with nuance. Based on the novel of the same name by David Guterson, director S.J. Chiro helms (using a script from Thane Swigart) with softness and sensitivity for the material, which sees Tom Skerritt’s Ben Givens protecting the knowledge of his terminal illness away from his daughter Renee (Mira Sorvino), also suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts following the loss of his wife one year prior (there’s also another movie starting to stream on Netflix this Friday with a similar plot, each taking wildly different approaches but let’s say the earnestness and authenticity of Ben’s character here make that other movie I will not name somehow even worse).
The opening moments skillfully inform Ben’s relevant details, meaning there’s no need for awkward exposition. It’s also evident that his thinking about taking his life with a shotgun, seemingly frustrated that he cannot pull the trigger. Nevertheless, he goes on to meet his daughter at a fancy restaurant for dinner, only for a heated argument to break out, chief among them being how distant and closed off he has become.
It’s enough to cause Ben to grab his adorable dog (presumably the closest thing he has to a friend right now) Rex and venture out into the wild, seemingly with a death wish as he doesn’t even bother trying to fix his vehicle once it breaks down. Instead, he hitchhikes with a pair of strangers that drop him off further into the mountains and isolation. Of course, Ben has also brought the shotgun along, but whether he plans to use it on himself or for self-defense is anyone’s guess. Also, the fact that he is bringing his dog forth for this potentially bleak journey does come across as uncomfortably selfish, but the rest of the narrative ensures that decision does not go unaccounted for.
While camping and sleeping through the night, a wild coyote appears and begins attacking Ben rapidly with no signs of letting up, even after repeated kicks and shoves. With no other option, Ben is forced to reach for the trusty shotgun and put down the hostile animal, only for its owner to arrive agitated that his best coyote was murdered. At this point, there’s a slight concern that East of the Mountains will betray its quaint and meditative tone for something more thrilling. However, that’s thankfully not the case as the grieving owner takes the gun away from Ben, who right now is more concerned with getting to a veterinary clinic to save his own pup’s life.
Reaching help just in the nick of time, Ben also befriends veterinarian Anita (Annie Gonzalez), who not only performs surgery on and bandages up Rex but also notices the signs that Ben is not in a healthy headspace or thinking rationally. Together with her brother (Diego Collie), they offer hospitality and begin bonding with the fractured soul. Serious reflection also kicks in here, as we are treated to several lyrical flashbacks showing Ben falling in love, among other things. He also turns out to be a former military surgeon himself. With that said, the rest of East of the Mountains follows Ben confronting his past (everything from coming clean to his daughter about dying soon and reconnecting with other estranged, abandoned family members) while Rex heals.
It is a straightforward narrative, and while the flashbacks are relatively unsuccessful at adding depth to Ben’s past, the hurt and moving performance from Tom Skerritt is exceptional and potentially makes for a beautiful swansong. East of the Mountains is a small, lived-in work that resonates with its honesty and compelling acting.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com