A pilot takes two passengers on a private flight through the mountains after a commercial one gets cancelled. There is bad weather coming in, the pilot has a nonchalant attitude, and… well, whatever may cause the plane to go down, there is little doubt that the plane is going to go down. Actually, just seeing the trailers or hearing anything about “The Mountain Between Us” tells you that the plane is going to go down. The whole movie is about how the plane goes down and these two passengers fight to survive despite the fact that there’s a mountain between them and civilization, and another between the two of them (that one’s metaphorical).

I give you the whole setup here because it’s obviously going to occur. Perhaps writers Chris Weitz and J. Mills Goodloe as well as director Hany Abu-Assad knew the whole thing was obvious to everyone in the audience and that is why some of the exposition early on is so terrible (as is the double meaning of the title, a title which is the same as the book by Charles Martin upon which the movie is based). One incredibly awkward bit of dialogue involves the pilot (Beau Bridges) being asked nonchalantly if he filed a flight plan, to which he responds that it’s a VFR flight (visual flight rules as opposed to instrument) and so a flight plan isn’t necessary. Even if an audience member doesn’t know the plane is going to go down before that moment, they know it as soon as that back and forth takes place.

All of this stuff is a shame because at the center of the movie are characters being played by Idris Elba and Kate Winslet, two incredibly fine actors both of whom are wonderful in this film. Elba is Ben Bass, a doctor trying to make it across the country to perform a surgery and Winslet is Alex Martin, a professional photographer trying to get home for her wedding the next day.

Obviously this last bit is awkward and ridiculous as well – she has scheduled her flights so that the cancellation of one of them would lead to her missing her own wedding. Even if she’s not terribly invested in the relationship with her fiancé, played by Dermot Mulroney, setting up flights in this manner doesn’t even make a good show of pretending she cares.

The meat of “The Mountain Between Us” is Ben and Alex attempting to make their way back towards civilization, and trying to do so with the pilot’s dog, very little food, very little shelter, and both humans having been injured in the crash. This portion of the movie is nothing short of excellent. It is an utterly gripping tale of survival, with these two quite different people, people who were strangers before they got on the plane, having to work together so they can live. There is a forced intimacy between Ben and Alex, and the audience gets to see this relationship form and grow and change and struggle as the two fight to get out of the mountains. Will they make it? Will they die in the mountains? Abu-Assad actually manages to make the audience wonder.

Additionally, the mountains themselves are wonderfully captured by Abu-Assad and director of photography Mandy Walker. The location is hauntingly gorgeous and yet incredibly deadly, both of which come across. Even the sound of their feet crunching in the snow works.

There is just so much other stuff around the scenery and the tale of survival which doesn’t work that it is amazing that “The Mountain Between Us” succeeds as much as it does. It is a testament to what happens when two wonderful actors play off one another for such a substantial amount of the movie. Winslet and Elba make what would be an entirely over-the-top story told in mediocre fashion into something far superior.  It becomes something worth seeing for their performances and not the larger work itself.

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photo credit: 20th Century Fox