For the last sixty years, few actors have been as reliable an onscreen presence as Tom Skerritt. Bearded-yet-buttoned-up, handsome-yet-approachable, the 88-year-old has built an accomplished career playing sturdy, steadfast leaders. For decades, Skerritt has been the ideal supporting actor—highlights including M*A*S*H, Alien, Top Gun, and A River Runs Through It. His new film, East of the Mountains, provides a plum leading role of which he makes the most.
Skerritt plays Ben Givens, a retired surgeon still mourning the death of his wife. Against the wishes of his only daughter (Mira Sorvino), Ben chooses to go on a days-long hunting trip with his trusty dog Rex as his sole companion. What his daughter doesn’t know (and what nobody else knows) is that Ben has terminal cancer. In the opening scene he produces his father’s old rifle and considers killing himself. This hunting trip is meant to be the final thing.
Of course, life gets in the way. Adapted from David Guterson’s novel of the same name and directed by S.J. Chiro, East of the Mountains is almost admirably simple. Thane Swigart keeps his screenplay spare while Chiro relies mostly on Skerritt’s presence. Annie Gonzalez is a standout here, playing a small-town vet who literally comes to both Rex and Ben’s rescue after a dangerous encounter with locals in the Washington state wilderness.
And while the dialogue may be few and far between, there are some choice moments. Consider a lovely scene wherein Gonzalez’s Anita learns Ben used to be a surgeon while they operate on Rex. She asks him to tell a story from his medical past to pass the time. “The time will pass on its own,” he replies, softly. It’s not rude, it’s not mean. It’s true. This is a private man with private reasons for the decisions he’s made that have led him to this place.
The film stumbles a bit when flashbacks appear, as if to pad its brisk 80-minute runtime a bit. There’s also some awkward ADR applied to certain scenes that cuts into the realist aesthetic a bit. These are small criticisms. Skerritt carries the day. His sunken cheeks, stark white hair, and deep eyes give a performance all by themselves. Cinematographer Sebastien Scandiuzzi builds some magic frames in collaboration with the stunning Pacific Northwest. One recalls the other Guterson adaptation from the late ’90s, and one of the most beautiful films ever made: Snow Falling On Cedars. Scandiuzzi should be proud. There’s plenty of to marvel at onscreen throughout.
Skerritt has consistently worked since the early ’60s, though less frequently in recent years. East of the Mountains is a welcome late encore, and Chiro deserves a bundle of credit for not overplaying her hand. There’s more than a few moments where saccharine is the easy option. And while some will say the film is perhaps too understated, it meets its star at the right level. A little goes a long way here.
East of the Mountains opens in theaters and VOD on September 24.