Had the widower Ben Givens executed his plan early in “East of the Mountains,” it would have made for a very short movie. Instead, Ben (Tom Skerritt) reconsiders killing himself in the home he and his wife shared and decides to stage a hunting accident. With his sweet spaniel and a shotgun, Ben drives east, away from Seattle and away from his daughter (Mira Sorvino), who doesn’t know he has cancer, toward the land of his youth. Washington’s Columbia River basin is a vast terrain rife with shrub and grassland, apple orchards and memories.
His plan may have been revised, but he remains resolute. Then his car engine blows. Ben is picked up by two young lovers. Their solicitousness is buzzy and heralds interactions that will alter Ben’s journey. Some are kindly. One proves nearly lethal.
There’s a bit of Hemingway-like overdetermined white masculinity to Ben, whose calling as a doctor came during the Korean War. Thane Swigart’s script engages that quality and provides a couple of demographic observations. “It wasn’t this brown when you were growing up,” Anita (Annie Gonzalez), a veterinarian and veteran, says about the town of Ben’s childhood.
Based on David Guterson’s novel of the same name, this engaging if familiar drama (directed by SJ Chiro) joins a growing number of movies about aging protagonists. Often, these films are rewarding not so much for their story as for the telling performance of an actor who spent his or her career elevating the surrounding ensembles. In a star’s turn, Skerritt reveals the tiniest fissures of vulnerability in his unfaltering portrayal of a cardiologist who is ailing and grieving — and fed up with both.
East of the Mountains
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy on Apple TV, Google Play and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators.
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