Lawrence Toppman

‘Everest’: Life and death on the real Mount Doom

An American guide on Mount Everest (Jake Gyllenhaal) contemplates an approaching storm in “Everest.”
An American guide on Mount Everest (Jake Gyllenhaal) contemplates an approaching storm in “Everest.” Universal Pictures

Until this year, Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur mostly made two types of pictures: dramas in his native language about men trying to survive under brutal conditions (“The Deep”) and action-adventures in English with American movie stars (“2 Guns”). The former were compelling, the latter disposable.

He combines those types in “Everest,” a frighteningly good picture about an ill-fated assault upon the world’s highest mountain in 1996.

If you’ve read “Into Thin Air,” the nonfiction account by Jon Krakauer (who was on one of the two expeditions that day), you know who’s not going to come back. I knew no details and found myself caught up in the drama, even if parkas and goggles and wind-suppressed dialogue prevented me from understanding who was who at every turn.

Kormákur worked with the two best writers he’s had, William Nicholson (“Shadowlands” and “Gladiator”) and Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”). The three manage a delicate balance between peril on the slopes and an emotional connection with the characters, notably expedition leader Rob Hall (Jason Clarke). He leaves a pregnant wife (Keira Knightley) at home in New Zealand and a devoted friend (Emily Watson) back at base camp.

Kormákur’s a storyteller who cares more about “how” than “why,” so we don’t learn much about motivation.

A boastful Texan (Josh Brolin) apparently wants to conquer one of the few things in the world bigger than his ego. A mailman who almost made it to the top (John Hawkes) carries the flag of elementary schoolers who helped finance his second trip.

A Japanese woman who has reached six of the seven highest summits (Naoko Mori) looks surprised when Krakauer (Michael Kelly) asks why she’s there. “Because I have only six of seven,” she answers. Pressed as to why she has bothered to do any of the seven, she has no answer.

Perhaps there can’t be one. People who perform under such extreme conditions test personal limits (assuming they’re not just self-destructive) and want to accomplish something almost no one else has done. That may be enough of an explanation; it is for Kormákur, who gets them onto the terrifying white slopes quickly.

The film relies on a balanced ensemble, with Clarke taking the lead. When Jake Gyllenhaal shows up as a brash American guide, sunning himself shirtlessly on Everest with bourbon in hand, he seems ready to take over the film but never does. The mountain, grim and unforgiving, remains the star. (The crew shot in Nepal but got much of its mountain footage in the Italian Alps.)

The 3-D IMAX version opens Friday exclusively, and if you have the extra money on hand, it’s the one to see. (A regular-sized 3-D version will follow next week.)

Cinematographer Salvatore Totino (“The Da Vinci Code”) conveys to the last, most disturbing degree the punishing conditions on the mountainside. The makeup department shows how faces and bodies break down at that altitude – as the doctor for Hall’s team observes, the body begins to die so far above ground level – and we gain new respect for people who try literally to live above the clouds.

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Cast: Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, Emily Watson, Keira Knightley, John Hawkes, Sam Worthington.

Director: Baltasar Kormákur.

Length: 121 minutes.

Rating: PG-13 (intense peril and disturbing images).