Were you planning a modern adaptation of Hamlet, this might be an enticing approach for our post-Free Solo era: Hamlet’s father is a mountaineer, with Claudius as his less vaunted assistant. Sick of playing second fiddle to the king, Claudius stages an avalanche and then returns home and promptly marries the king’s wife. Grief-stricken Hamlet decides to produce a documentary about his father’s death to torment his mother for her too-soon remarriage and in hopes of making Claudius confess. Misadventures ensue, and Hamlet learns a valuable lesson about revenge and nunneries.
This isn’t exactly the story of Max Lowe’s documentary Torn, but in some ways, it’s disturbingly close. One can easily imagine all the ways Torn could have become something sensationalistic and tawdry. Instead, it’s a family drama that, rather than exploiting its jaw-dropping twists, aims for something more contemplative and much more emotional. Torn isn’t a terrifying, see-on-the-big-screen-at-all-costs thriller like Free Solo, but it’s almost guaranteed to make you cry by the end, and it mostly earns that response.
A remarkable story told with admirable intimacy.
Alex Lowe was one of the world’s most famous mountain climbers, and part of the hook that earned him news features and magazine covers was that he was undertaking death-defying adventures and then returning home to his wife, Jenni, and their three kids. In 1999, Alex and his best friend and climbing partner, Conrad Anker, were on the Himalayan peak Mount Shishapangma when an avalanche struck. Fleeing, Conrad went one way and survived. Alex and the expedition photographer, David Bridges, went the other and were lost.
Not that long after — though too long for the funeral baked meats to coldly furnish forth the marriage tables — Conrad married Jenni, making him the only father that Alex’s younger sons, Sam and Isaac, can remember. Oldest son Max, however, was 10 when Alex disappeared. After carving out a career as a globe-trotting photographer and director of short films and commercials, Max decided to turn his camera on his family, even as several of his subjects caution him that if he launches this investigation, he might not like what he finds out.
Let’s make this very, very, very clear: Conrad Anker is not Claudius, and Max Lowe’s goal is not to stage a play wherein he’ll catch the conscience of the king. The film is in an attempt to understand his father and the very unusual origins of the Lowe-Anker clan, and not necessarily in the easiest or neatest way possible. Max idolized his father, but he very clearly harbors some resentment over the fact that the lure of the mountains was greater than the lure of domesticity. At the same time, he respects Conrad and understands that, to his two siblings, Conrad is Dad and Alex is just “Alex.”
What Max has are pent-up questions, questions that no 11-year-old would ever ask his mother and his new stepfather. And the questions he has are probably identical to the questions that any viewer is going to have after reading the description of the documentary, much less watching the first 15 minutes. So Max sits across from Jenni and Conrad — separately, no opportunity for conspiring here — and peppers them with uncomfortable queries. Sometimes they have answers. Sometimes they’re evasive. Sometimes they can’t articulate answers. And sometimes they turn questions back on Max. No matter who is being put on the spot, Max is content to let the camera keep rolling through any squirming or uncertainty.
Max is, as the documentary’s title suggests, torn. How couldn’t he be? It’s an inconceivable situation for nearly everybody. Jenni is torn between feelings that she betrayed the father of her children and a desire not to paint Alex as some sort of saint just because he died. Conrad is torn between astonishing gratitude for this second chance at life and survivor’s guilt. Max’s siblings are torn between the comfort of the only life they really remember and a figure who, in absence, has achieved legendary status.
Nothing in Torn is clean or easy, but Max treats the messiness with astonishing restraint on every level. As an interviewer, he doesn’t raise his voice literally, nor as a filmmaker does he let his frustration or inner conflict play out through confrontational editing or button-pushing musical choices from Danny Benji and Saunder Jurriaans.
Although the backdrop of the story is a daredevil explorer and an ill-fated peak in the Himalayas, and although Lowe’s background is in photography, he doesn’t follow the recent genre path — see Meru, the Oscar-winning Free Solo or the upcoming The Alpinist — to treat this film as vertigo porn. Yes, the photography is sometimes beautiful, including ample archival material from Alex’s various expeditions, but the documentary is as much at home in a warmly lit kitchen in Bozeman, Montana, as it is departing base camp at Mount Shishapangma. Though there might be one or two moments when you want to look away — Max seeing his father’s last videos is harrowing, to be sure — the highest peaks in Torn are peaks of intimacy.
This isn’t a criticism of a documentary like Free Solo (or The Alpinist). There’s a technical virtuosity to those films that Torn simply doesn’t aspire to, and it will be every bit as effective on your TV as in a movie theater. Still, it’s a different kind of courageous to make a movie that leaves the adrenaline rush of the ascent behind and concentrates on a remarkable story built around the very unremarkable and universal experiences of grief, healing and putting one foot in front of the other, whether you’re wearing mountaineering crampons or tennis shoes.