Veteran character actors rarely get the chance to shine in a leading film role, especially in the twilight of their careers. Which makes it a special treat to see Tom Skerritt seize the opportunity and run with it in this adaptation of David Guterson’s best-selling 1999 novel East of the Mountains. Playing a terminally ill man intent on ending his life on his own terms, Skerritt delivers the sort of late-career defining performance that serves as an overdue reminder of the terrific work he’s been delivering for nearly six decades.
The 88-year-old actor — his deeply lined face exemplifying “craggy,” but still lean and sporting a leonine mane of white hair — plays Ben Givens, a retired cardiac surgeon suffering from terminal cancer. He’s revealed the condition to no one, not even his loving daughter, Renee (Mira Sorvino), and his intention to not go gentle into that good night is indicated in the film’s opening moments, when he places a shotgun to his head. He doesn’t go through with it just then, but instead decides to take his beloved spaniel, Rex, with him on a camping trip in the mountainous region of eastern Washington where he grew up, presumably to finish the deed.
East of the Mountains
Skerritt delivers a career-defining performance.
His plans quickly go awry. First, his car breaks down, and he’s forced to accept a ride from a friendly young couple who are puzzled when he insists that they drop them him off in the middle of nowhere. Then, while Ben is enjoying a campfire and a leisurely toke on a forgotten joint he finds in his travel pack (Skerritt’s rueful laugh when he discovers it is priceless), Rex is savagely attacked and nearly killed by a dog owned by a coyote hunter (John Paulsen). Ben is forced to kill the other dog, to which the angry hunter responds by stealing his shotgun.
The taciturn Ben opens up, just a little, to Anita (Annie Gonzalez, richly warm), the friendly vet who nurses Rex back to health. Their burgeoning friendship, depicted with subtlety and grace, allows us the opportunity to learn more about Ben. His monologue about how he wound up going to medical school and becoming a surgeon, as a result of a traumatic experience during his time serving in the Korean War, is made all the more moving for Skerritt’s restrained delivery. The scene exemplifies the actor’s perfectly understated performance. And while he’s still clearly in excellent physical condition, he vividly makes clear his character’s labored efforts to power through the pain caused by his illness.
Director S.J. Chiro, working from a script by Thane Swigart, keeps things low-key throughout. The unhurried pacing and minimalist plotline might frustrate some viewers, but those who are more patient will be amply rewarded by the incisive characterizations and dialogue. Those qualities are on particular display in the scenes involving Ben’s tense reunion with his long-estranged, plain-speaking brother (Wally Dalton, terrific), which never strike a false note.
Less effective are the flashback sequences, visually awkward and feeling extraneous, in which Ben relives moments of his past both joyous and sorrowful. But they don’t seriously diminish the film’s overall impact.
With a lesser actor, East of the Mountains could have come across as tedious or maudlin, or both. Instead, Skerritt delivers a performance of such understated eloquence and dignity that it emerges as a quiet gem.