Nothing to lose

This vehicle for Tom Skerritt (you might remember him from M*A*S*H, Alien, The Dead Zone, Top Gun, A River Runs Through It, or Up in Smoke), who's now eighty-seven, is one of those old-codgers-gettin'-in-trouble pictures. Another in the genre is 2018's The Old Man and the Gun, starring Robert Redford (admittedly a mere eighty-two at the time). But the codger Redford plays, based on an improbable but real person, breaks out of jail and robs banks. Quite a few of them. Ben Givens (Skerritt) isn't anything so colorful but a retired Seattle cardiologist. He's an enigmatic type, long estranged from his brother Aiden (Wally Dalton). Sadly, his wife died a year ago after a long illness. He's neglected to tell his daughter Renee (Mia Sorvino) that he's been diagnosed with cancer and not surprisingly he doesn't share that he's not seeking treatment and expects to end it all, using a handsome old hunting rifle he inherited from his father, with whom he and Aiden, in friendlier days, learned to hunt in the woodland valleys of eastern Washington. Ben takes leave of Renee for a while, taking the rifle and his brown and white setter Rex in his van for one last lone hunt back in the beautiful lands he hunted as a boy. From the look of things he may aim to blow his brains out when he's done using the rifle for the hunting.

Ben is a dry old fellow. He's got balls, for sure, as we see when he stands up to a coyote hunter he has an unfriendly encounter with in the middle of the night in the woods, after sharing a quail or two with Rex over a fire. Rex winds up the biggest loser after a clash with the coyote hunter's mean coyote dog. Remarkably, they wind up in the care of a warm-hearted veterinarian called Anita (Annie Gonzalez), who sews up Rex better and gives Ben a home-cooked meal or two.

I don't want to saw I'd rather Ben robbed banks, though one must admit that the real-life crook Redford played, Forrest Tucker, was a mighty appealing character and the Redford picture, which shows the original touch of its director, David Lowery, has a lot of charm and is graced by the presence of Danny Glover and, especially, Casey Affleck. Actually, plenty happens in East of the Mountains, considering the main character's age and state of health. A lot of the time Ben is alone. He's an unrevealing character, whose stoicism is admirable. I'm not sure I'd have wanted him as my cardiologist. But the real trouble is that he's not silent and mysterious enough to be interesting. The movie relies a lot on echoing guitar music with strings; photography of the beautiful mountain, forest, river valley country of East Washington State; and on a lot of elaborately staged flashbacks showing both Ben and Aiden as boys (idyllic) and Ben meeting his wife and their early married life (touching) These flashbacks, I'm guessing, are hinting at more elaborate storytelling involving all kinds of complexities between Ben and his wife (the memorable-looking Victoria Summer Felix) that come out into the light in the novel by Snow Falling on Cedars author David Guterson that Thane Swigart chooses to present only as mime in his screenplay adaptation. Away from the beautifully staged but ultimately unrevealing flashbacks, there are a few strong moments of dialogue when somebody for a minute is pushed to the limit into a high level of explicitness. But the finale is unsatisfying and Skerritt, whose eyes look narrow and unfriendly to me, has not won my heart. This movie has its shortcomings. Nonetheless I think I'd rather watch an old guy hunting and getting in scraps -- or robbing banks -- than see Anthony Hopkins fighting dementia. When Ben loses things, it's intentional, and I like that.

East of the Mountains, 93 mins., debuted at Seattle Apr. 9, 2021; Skerritt is a longtime resident in the region, as are the director and author Guterson. The film has no distributor yet. Watched at home on a screener Apr. 12, 2021.