It’s no spoiler to say that the mountain between Ben Bass (Idris Elba) and Alex Martin (Kate Winslet) is a symbolic one. Ben is a British neurologist who’s in a rush to get to Baltimore so as to perform emergency surgery. Alex is a photojournalist for The Guardian who needs to get to New York City because she’s getting married the next day. Stuck in Salt Lake City as a snowstorm gathers force, they rent a charter plane to get them to Denver and their connecting flights. But their not-so-best-laid plan is blown up by nature, and a stroke suffered by their pilot (Beau Bridges), leaving them stranded atop a high mountain to contend with more than just the elements.
The Mountain Between Us is a throwback to one of those old Hollywood moonshots of thorny romance and life-or-death adventure, a recombinant version of Strange Cargo and Call of the Wild. And for a while, mainly around its middle stretch, Hany Abu-Assad’s film is notable for the way it fixates on its characters’ rush toward survival, homing in on the intimacy that they achieve without ever suggesting that there’s any actual romance in their future. Ben, resigned to dying, asks Alex to take his picture, but she refuses, remembering a time when she took a photograph of a girl just before an explosion claimed her life. And when Ben and Alex eventually have sex, Elba and Winslet wondrously play the cold functionality of the act, as if these perfect strangers were fucking for no other reason than it might be their last chance to do it.
Ben and Alex—and this may come as a spoiler to some—survive their ordeal, and it’s back in the context of their normal lives, where not having to stare death in the face means having the luxury to more carefully choose one’s words, that the film’s dialogue takes on inexcusably cringe-inducing dimensions. At one point, Alex’s stick-in-the-mud betrothed, Mark (Dermot Mulroney), tells her, and with stone-cold seriousness, how he will always love her even if she comes home with a part of herself missing. To Alex’s credit, she breaks up with him. But the moment is nonetheless conspicuous, one of many screenwriter contrivances that exist like narrative breadcrumbs to mechanically and obligatorily lead Ben and Alex into each other’s arms for good, and in a way that’s almost indifferent to the audience’s intelligence.