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A review of "Mountain Men" (2014)

Mountain Men is one of those anonymous low-budget movies that pads out the Netflix catalog.  You know the kind I mean, right?  There's literally hundreds of them - small productions you've never heard of that make you wonder if you're out of touch or if you just fell into the leftovers from some independent film festival.

Sometimes they feel like pranks.  You start it up and enjoy the sleek production logos, but within twenty minutes you realize you're watching DSLR footage from somebody's basement in Montana and you say, "Wait, that guy isn't Dan Stevens after all... who made this?"

Fortunately, Mountain Men falls into the other half of those movies.  It's the kind of movie that makes you feel like you stumbled onto a hidden treasure, even though said treasure was featured prominently on Netflix's "Trending Now" row and wasn't particularly hard to find.

Don't let that poster fool you.  I know it looks like a poorly-photoshopped "smile on the inside" family comedy that possibly takes place around Christmas, but it's actually a well-polished, nuanced drama about two brothers and their respective challenges with transitioning to adulthood.

Toph (Tyler Labine) is a weed-dealing DJ who lives in a small mountain town.  His father recently disappeared and is presumed dead.  Shortly thereafter, his mother remarries. Enter Cooper (Chace Crawford), Toph's younger and more successful brother who moved to New York City and has spent the last few years living a hip, glamorous lifestyle.  Cooper returns to town for his mom's wedding, and then Toph asks him to join him on a trek to their dad's cabin out in the wilderness to chase away a squatter that's been living there.

Needless to say, the trip goes wrong and antics ensue.  Virtually anything else I can say about the plot is technically a spoiler, so if I was trying to keep everything a secret, I'd have to leave it there.  But here's the catch.  The stuff I've mentioned so far?  It takes about 15-20 minutes of the run time, and it's easily the worst part of the movie.  I would in no way try to sell the movie based on that first part.

I kinda wish they could go back and recut the opening so that Cooper's return hinged on a memorial service for their dad rather than their mom's wedding.  It's a little bit cliche, sure, but it would be so much more direct and it would let them get to the woods quicker.  The first 15-20 minutes kinda feel like the sort of ho-hum mumblecore garbage that everybody else calls "subtle" while you keep checking your phone.  But once you get past that hump, it's all good.

The moment the movie switches into gear is also the biggest laugh.  One might go so far as to say the "only" laugh; even though there are funny bits here and there, the comedy is definitely relegated to the background.  From that point on, the brothers try to survive in the wilderness and it becomes the character study it was meant to be from the beginning.

There's nothing terribly complicated about it.  Toph and Cooper are both flawed men who try to hide their failures and insecurities from the world, but when they're pushed into the wilderness, they have to confront the truth about themselves.  It's one continuous "take a long look in the mirror" moment that touches on everything from manliness to fatherhood to jealousy to mental illness.

The best moments, surprisingly, are the ones where the brothers are forced into an action movie.  There are tense moments of survival that can be boiled down to "two idiots luck their way through close encounters."  My favorite sequence - and the one I expect to remember most years from now - involves getting a sled down a cliff using a rope and a prayer.  It's a shockingly exciting scene and definitely not one that you're expecting when you look at that poster.

I mean, look at it again.  Look closely.

You see that faraway glance in Tyler Labine's eyes?  It looks like two guys who have to join Santa's workshop as a community service sentence.

Anyway.  File this one under "better than expected."  It's a fantastic drama about facing reality and taking your fate into your own hands.