By Elias Savada.
A penetrating ride up the side of sheer madness, yet a celebration of one man’s individualism.”
Been there, seen that.
Well, if we’re talking about mountain climbing. No, not me personally. I’ve just watched a lot of rock (climbing) stars in movies glorifying those incredibly epic – and, in a too many, sadly memorializing – feats. I tackled Meru (“I like looking at mountains”) a half dozen years ago, climbed aboard Mountain (“transcendent”) and the Oscar-winning Free Solo (“pushing life to the edge”) in 2018. All without falling out of my cineplex seat.
Naturally, it’s time to start (watching) another wondrous journey with The Alpinist, and some of the same extreme climbers I’ve marveled at before, are now perched on the sidelines as they acclaim their new high climber, Canadian Marc-André Leclerc, as he scales some monstrous stone walls in on-sight fashion, i.e. without any previous information on a first attempt. Imagine doing that over a dozen times.
Never one to say no when other extremists in his field have, Leclerc, quite a solitary figure when the filmmakers track him down, conquers one impossible peak after another – as a solo artist with no safety rope. “He’s walking relatively close to the edge, in big environments. And I think he can do a fair amount of that and get away with it. But sooner or later, it’s gonna bite him,” fellow alpinist Will Gadd offers in one of the dozen-plus talking heads gathered by directors Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen. Mortimer, who also offers a muted narration here, previously scaled the heights with The Dawn Wall, a 2018 SWSW audience award-winning documentary he made with Josh Lowell. Rosen, Mortimer’s partner in Sender Films, made the Emmy-winning Valley Uprising, a 2014 ode to counter-culture climbers in Yosemite. The pair, who climb as well, have crafted Reel Rock, following the world’s top climbers over the last 15+ years. These are the pros you want show-running The Alpinist. They do not disappoint. Visually, they know how to enthrall. Whether showing a human speck on the side of an immense mountain or watching up close via Go-Pro or drone cameras, you’re hooked into Leclerc’s intensity and unique drive, even if you know he’s bothered by their eavesdropping on his personal achievements.
As one of the more exciting climbers in any type of terrain, Leclerc managed to evade the filmmakers’ radar, as he never publicized his climbs, has no online presence, and doesn’t use a cell phone and doesn’t own a car. And yet he was setting the world of alpinism ablaze with his solo ascents. While immersing themselves into their own film detracts from just showing off Leclerc’s daring mountain goat and spider-like abilities, it does offer additional insight into his free-spirit approach to life. When Mortimer and Rosen final connect with the reclusive soloist in 2016, he’s reluctant to have them tag along, but eventually does allow them limited access as he scales one peak after another. The most harrowing moments – among many – is when he decides to tackle Patagonia’s Torre Egger, a spire of rock, water, snow, and ice that most climbers believe to be the most treacherous in the Western Hemisphere. So, to add a little more danger to this impossible mission, Leclerc does it in the bluster of winter. One man, one mountain, although he does allow his friend and fellow climber Austin Siadak to capture his ascent on the lower portion of the vertical trek. On the upper end, Mark stands alone, with a small camera to capture his feat. As for his grueling journey, even the most gruesome horror film won’t scare you as much as this sequence does.
Leclerc’s girlfriend, Brette Harrington, and his mother, Michelle Kulpers, offer up adequate backstory and support, confirming what any observant viewer might suspect – that he was diagnosed with ADD at an early age and would not, or could not, sit down in a normal classroom environment. He had to keep moving. To Leclerc, there’s nowhere to go but up.
Never fatalistic, the 20-something’s brain isn’t wired to believe any of his adventures might end tragically. Sure, a blizzard might sidetrack him, but clear skies are just around the corner. He’s always ready. “I survived, which counts for a lot.” Amusingly, the lad’s appearance suggests he’s an older brother of Ben Platt, the star of Dear Evan Hansen (the movie version of which arrives shortly), about someone with similar isolation issues that burden them both. The curly hair, the scruff of facial hair, the searching eyes.
Hero? Daredevil? Risk taker extraordinaire? All those, and more. The Alpinist is a penetrating ride up the side of sheer madness, yet a celebration of one man’s individualism.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).