East of the Mountains has a heavy set up. Ben Givens (Tom Skerritt) is a retired heart surgeon who learns he has terminal cancer. This leads him to deciding to head to his boyhood home in Easter Washington with his dog. A chance encounter prevents Ben from ending things the way he wanted.
Based on the novel by David Guterson, the film is a weighty one. The overarching theme is the cycle of life and death. Ben’s cancer and is decision as to how to deal with it are the most obvious examples, but there are other incidents that tie into the idea.
Skerritt is magnificent in the lead role. Obviously, the part required emotional depth and the veteran actor is up to the task. Ben has decided not to tell anyone what he is going through and his plans. There is also a stoicism to the character that is admirable, if off-putting at times.
East of the Mountains moves at a patient pace. The story is a character study of a character who feels like they have nothing left. In order for the film to work, Ben has to be an immensely interesting person. Despite Skerritt’s great performance, Ben is not as well rounded as he could be. There are some great attempts – the relationships with his wife and daughter are explained well – but there is little beyond the suffering in his life.
The setting is gorgeous leading to some picturesque moments. When a film is set in this type of locale, the question will eventually lead to, is it the cinematography or is it just a natural result of the location? While there is an undemanding beauty to East of the Mountains, director S.J. Chiro has an eye for getting the most from the camera.
A story about man with a terminal disease who sets out with his dog to the scenic state he grew up in seems geared towards making audiences cry. East of the Mountains is certainly trying to garner a strong emotional reaction, but there is also a sensitivity to it. The film explores relatable themes and goes beyond knee jerk reactions.
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