How has Tom Skerritt never been the star of a movie before? It took a while—way too long—but now at 87, Skerritt delivers a performance that belies a soulfulness and reservoir of talent that has only been briefly glimpsed in his numerous supporting roles over the years.
“East of the Mountains” opened Thursday as part of the (virtual) Seattle Film Festival, which is the precisely correct venue given the movie was filmed not only in that city but in beautiful rural Washington state (the closing credits thank the Native American tribes on whose land filming took place). Like most simple stories—and especially those dealing with a man doing battle with himself—a grand backdrop is, if not required, certainly welcome.
The film opens with Ben (Skerritt) gingerly handling a hunting rifle. He sits down on a bed—and proceeds to put the barrel into his mouth. He thinks better of it and sets aside the weapon. Skerritt betrays nothing, and lets the awful moment end where it should.
Next, we see Ben dining with his daughter Renee (Mira Sorvino). Some time has passed since Ben’s wife Rachel died, but Renee has the sense her father is not dealing with the loss of her mother. It is also clear Ben would rather be elsewhere, and excuses himself from the meal prematurely.
Back at home, he packs up a few things, including his dog. He heads east away from Seattle to the great wilderness. Because Ben has said almost nothing, we have no inclination as to what he is up to. Perhaps even he doesn’t know.
Alas, his truck breaks down on a remote highway. Samaritans give him a lift to a slightly more remote nowhere, where Ben walks off into the sunset. Together he and the dog hunt for dinner and snuggle by an evening campfire.
That is until a nighttime attack by hunting dogs disturbs their sleep. Ben’s faithful fido comes to his rescue, but is injured in the fight. In the confusion, Ben shoots the attacking dog dead. That dog’s owner, Bill (John Paulsen) is none too pleased with this, and demands Ben’s rifle as compensation—the same weapon whose barrel Ben recently had in his lips.
Ben sutures up the pooch’s wounds and bravely carries him to a small town, where a kindly veterinarian (Anita Romero) agrees to stitch him up below cost. The dog will have to stay for several days, and thus Ben is stuck here.
If that sounds like rather little plot, it’s because “East of the Mountains” is far less interested in happenings than in observations. Sure, Ben will ultimately make a plan to get his family rifle back from the surly Bill, but he has a lot to undergo before getting to that point. Much of the middle point of the film involves closeups of Skerritt, whose visage betrays so little. We learn he used to be a doctor (hence his ability to suture up his dog), and that indeed he is grieving. And, of course, he has another secret reason or two for this trip we shall uncover in due time.
It is at this point, however, that director S.J. Chiro and screenwriter Thane Swigart (who adapted a book by David Guterson), in a bit of a misstep, provide us with flashbacks to young Ben (Jule Johnson) and young Rachel (Victoria Summer Felix) courting on a farm-like setting—as if we’ve stepped into a Steinbeck novel. Glimpses of young lovers are seen, as are later flashes of Ben and Renee at Rachel’s deathbed.
Personally, this I could have done without. Whatever pain Ben is carrying, Skerritt has adeptly conveyed this prior to the flashbacks, and it’s almost as if the filmmakers don’t trust him—or us.
No matter, I suppose, as “East of the Mountains” is a fairly short film, and thankfully most of it is devoted to Skerritt’s wonderful performance. Like any man of Ben’s age, death can never be far from his mind, whether it be by his own hand or a spoke of time. But that’s different from being afraid of the inevitable, and Skerritt infuses Ben with a complexity and a vulnerability that arouses our sympathies. The crags of his face are matched only by the barren landscapes he traverses, but we also see the love he has for his dog and his late wife—however, his compassion for living humans leaves something to be desired.
It’s an inspired, singular performance from Skerritt, and one that should be celebrated.
(Note: Skerritt was honored Thursday with SIFF’s 2021 Outstanding Achievement in Cinema Award.)