People on the Brink

At The Movies: A Man Contemplates End-of-Life and a Mother Faces Loss of Her Daughter to Drugs

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Tom Skerritt and his dog Rex roam the Columbia Basin in “East of the Mountains.”

East of the Mountains
This is a film as character study. An older man at an end-of-life crossroads contemplates his own demise in a world that has been comfortable for him. He is Ben Givens, played by veteran actor Tom Skeritt in his first leading role, moving through his beloved Eastern Washington state as naturally as the running of a chilly stream.  The pace is unhurried—even protracted—but with enough incident to keep the viewer intrigued and sympathetic (The film runs 93 minutes and is not rated).

Ben is a retired heart surgeon and bereft widower who learns he has terminal cancer. Determined to close out his days on his own terms, he shares the news with no one—not even his daughter René (Mira Sorvino). He travels back to his boyhood home, accompanied only by his loyal dog Rex, to hunt pigeons one more time. He also has flashback reveries  about his earlier life with his cherished wife.

But things don’t go as he’d like. On the road, his truck overheats, but a kind couple picks him up and delivers him to a familiar hill.  He is sleeping outside in a shallow cave when his dog is attacked by a vicious hound. Hitching a ride to a nearby town with a veterinarian practice run by the congenial Anita (Annie Gonzalez), who lovingly treats his dog and offers hospitality to Ben.  In her, he finds a person to whom he can talk and explore his fears at the end of his life.

“East of the Mountains” is based on David Guterson’s novel of 1999, set in the gorgeous Columbia Basin, where the film’s spectacular landscapes were filmed. Guterson, a Seattle native, has lived in Washington his whole life and has written about his state for over 30 years.  He is probably best known for his early novel, “Snow Falling on Cedars” (1998), a runaway best seller which was also made into a Hollywood film (2000).

Tom Skerritt was wholly involved with this picture, serving as one of the executive producers. Long resident in Seattle, he had come to know Guterson and his work so theirs is a natural collaboration. Known in the 1970’s as a good-humored, rugged sidekick in many major movies like “MASH,” “Alien,” “Top Gun,” etc., here he clearly identifies with this mature character and shows a debilitated, but decent man contemplating his end. In a way, his demeanor fits the script for a classic Western hero, laconic but intelligent, skeptical but kind. It’s fitting to see him dominate a film at this stage of his life.

From left, Glenn Close (Deb) and Mila Kunis (Molly) in “Four Good Days.” Photo from Vertical Entertainment

Four Good Days
Addiction is a long-time Hollywood theme for built-in drama: an agonizing (sometimes excruciating) trial by the addicted character desperate for a high then going through withdrawal witnessed by family or friend as the audience, wrenched by the depiction, is in suspense as to whether the character will triumph or relapse. Such a set-up can be particularly touching when the action plays out between parent and child.  One prominent recent example is the 2018 Julia Roberts-Lucas Hedges film, “Ben Is Back” which showed the extremes of parent paranoia and headstrong child. Now comes “Four Good Days,” a parallel story where a mother Deb (Glenn Close) must deal with her long-time junkie daughter Molly (Mila Kunis).

The struggle between the two, which originally appeared as an article by Eli Saskow of The Washington Post,  is fraught with mistrust and wariness and is hard to watch at times, but is redeemed by the performances of the two leads who convincingly take you down the rabbit-hole of drug craving (The film runs 100 minutes and is rated “R” for subject matter and language; it opened at area theaters on April 30).

Deb is a masseuse in a casino hotel, married to her bemused second husband Chris (Stephen Root). She has spent 10 years trying to affect her 30-something daughter’s addiction to heroin.  Nothing she has done has worked. The film opens with Molly, showing up unexpectedly back home, having run out of options where to go. Deb, who barely recognizes her,  reluctantly lets her stay but urges her to get into a four-day program, after which, if she stays clean, she can qualify for a treatment which could totally inhibit her addiction. Those fraught days make up the core of the picture, with Deb having to watch and critique Molly’s every move.

Mila Kunis, typically cast in sexy, slightly provocative roles, appropriately appears as a mess in this film, her big eyes enlarged by dark circles, her teeth gone, her frame wraith-like, her blond hair stringy (kudos to the makeup team). And her playing has a nice mix of languorous boredom and hair-trigger nervousness.

Close’s Deb is meant to be sympathetic, yet she keeps you at a distance with her constant  worry and sour memories, but she achieves the portrait of a woman who has a spine and can love even through constant disappointment.  You want her to succeed with her daughter but are concerned she will only witness yet another dead end.

“Four Good Days” was directed by Rodrigo Garcia, a Colombian-born filmmaker with a lengthy career in American television and movies.  He is known for working with strong women actors, and he has long had an association with Glenn Close, with whom he has worked together since 2000. Their most prominent success was “Albert Nobbs” (2011), for which Close received an Oscar nomination. This film may be their best collaboration since.

Film Critic and Capitol Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for 27 years and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and essays can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.