“Human beings simply aren’t built to function at the cruising altitudes of a seven-forty-seven.”
Character actors are what make the movie world go ‘round. Sure, big name leading actors and actresses get all the attention, but it’s the supporting characters that more often than not make a movie interesting. Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin and even Jason Clarke might all be leading men, but even in those leading roles, they’re often character parts, Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler, Brolin in No Country for Old Men, Clarke in Zero Dark Thirty. So what happens when you fill a cast with great character actors like these, as well as John Hawkes, Emily Watson and Michael Kelly, and make a big budget disaster movie? You get something much better than your average big budget disaster movie. You get Everest.
It’s 1996, and leading exhibitions to the summit of Mount Everest has become big business. Such big business that there are 20 different groups at base camp, getting ready for the ascent. One is lead by New Zealander Rob Hall (Clarke). While his pregnant wife (Keira Knightley with a flawless Kiwi accent as Jan) waits at home, Rob prepares his clients, including Brolin as the brash, cocky Texan Beck Weathers, and Hawkes as the everyman with something to prove, Doug Hansen. As well as adventure writer, Jon Krakauer (Kelly, whose beard seems to smother all the creepiness of his House of Cards character, Doug). Leading his own group is Scott Fischer (Gyllenhaal), the laid back, casual yin, to Rob’s conservative, meticulous yang.
After several practice climbs to get acclimatized to the thin air, Rob and Scott’s group’s head off together to tackle the summit. Along the way Beck suffers snow blindness, backup oxygen tanks go missing and they discover there are no ropes waiting for them to take the last step before reaching the top. But none of those setbacks compare to the approaching storm that gets closer and closer as they’re forced to stay at the top long after their planned time limit.
I can’t think of a movie that better captures the intensity of fear and a disaster, better than Everest. Long before anything goes wrong, this movie makes the danger of these characters endeavor so visceral and real. Rob gives a monologue about the hazards of the mountain that should be pure exposition, so we understand the threat later. But it comes off as so much more than just exposition. It puts you on the mountain, with these people, taking the risks with them.
I went in assuming I would find it hard to sympathise with these characters. If they want to piss away $65,000 and risk their life for a hobby that’s basically all about ego, then they accepted the risks and they got what they deserved. Only, all of these actors make their characters and their motivations so much more than ego and indulgence.
Everest got a little overshadowed at the box office by The Martian, and that’s a shame. Because it’s a kind of big budget spectacle movie we don’t see often. It’s a big budget spectacle movie with great performances, portraying characters who actually seem like real, believable people.