Richard Gray’s Sugar Mountain is the best work of his as director to date. He uses breathtaking exteriors shot on location in Seward, Alaska, as the backdrop for a story that reaches levels of Greek tragedy. Gray molds the Abe Pogos screenplay of young, bored people in a small town where everyone knows everything about everyone into a paranoid thriller built upon the muddied ground between lies and the truth.
While a lot of people will find themselves drawn to the film due to Jason Momoa’s involvement – and don’t get me wrong, he’s great – the strength of the story here is in its writing, as well as in the fabulous central performances of Shane Coffey, Drew Roy, and Haley Webb. These people feel like the real people of a town like Seward, or any other rural town. Their characters, caught in a web of deceit and ruthless personal ambitions, reveal how even in a tiny place consisting of people figuratively and literally right on top of one another, you still can’t know every last thing about everybody.
The Lies of a Boring Little Town
The plot is built upon Liam and Miles West, played by Coffey and Roy, and their desire to get out of Seward, where they and Miles’ girlfriend Lauren Huxley (Webb) are mired in a bored existence and stuck with painful memories of the past. Everyone in Pogos’ vision of Seward has their secrets, some bigger than others. The audience is privy to one of the biggest, that the West brothers and Lauren plan on executing a hoax: Liam will get falsely accused for his brother’s death after Miles goes on a planned expedition to purposely appear lost in the woods. The only problem with secrets is that usually those who hold onto one hold onto many.
Once the hoax is underway, Lauren, Liam, and Miles each contend with the further secrets hidden in Seward. What begins as a hoax quickly devolves into dangerous reality, as Miles actually goes missing in the wilderness. Then certain truths finally see the light, such as Liam possibly having feelings for Lauren, his brother’s longtime love. Then there’s Miles and his gambling debt, which leads to a lingering possibility of a violent confrontation with Joe Bright (Momoa). Later, Lauren’s father Jim Huxley (Cary Elwes) also becomes tangled in the deceit of his daughter and the West boys, after a long festering secret of his own devastates them all and leads to tragedy. The twisted pile of lies comes together in a way which alters the town of Seward permanently.
In Hindsight: Before and After Tragedy
As if ripped from real life, the Wests are at once the lovable brothers everyone in town knows. Their recently deceased mother was a big part of Seward and everybody there respected her, even to an extent the greasy criminal Joe Bright. During the hoax, Liam is regarded as a leper, as the townsfolk start believing he might have killed his brother in jealousy. What’s ironic is that if the town knew the level of their actual deception, they’d ostracise Lauren, Liam, and Miles alike. By the time the credits roll, all three of them are guilty of lying to the others, and nobody’s safe from criticism.
However, the ultimate irony is in the secret held by Jim Huxley. For most of the film he comes off as a great supporting character, though one whose final purpose isn’t integral to the plot. Perhaps having an actor like Elwes play him is already a signal of importance. The writing does its best to play him as another cog in the machine. Yet literally moments before the film finishes, Jim tells his daughter and the West brothers something which would undo everything that comes before. Sure, it would also negate the events of the film in reality. But this is why Sugar Mountain plays less like a thriller at heart, and more akin to a modern tragic tale out of mythology.
Characters Come to Life
The chemistry between Coffey and Roy as Liam and Miles West makes for a genuine relationship. They feel as if they could actually be brothers. Their convincing relationships, as well as the one Liam has with Jim Huxley, make Gray’s film more powerful. Right down to the bit parts, characters who appear only briefly, the small town of Seward comes alive on screen; none more so than Momoa.
Joe Bright is Momoa looking more like a character actor than a leading man with glistening muscles than anything he’s ever done. Appearing on camera for ten minutes tops, and that’s being gracious, he leaves his mark on the film, and his character is a large part of the tension which erupts between the West brothers. At one point Liam and Joe are stuck in a holding cell together at the police station, when Momoa uses his physicality to stun and terrify both Liam and the audience. It isn’t only his ferocity which impresses, as he also takes on a backwoods accent to convey even more about the character than any of his actions. If anybody sees Momoa as a one-trick pony, Sugar Mountain should change their mind.
The Post-Truth Era
Maybe Sugar Mountain came around at the right time. Living in a world where spin has sadly become, sometimes, more important than the story itself that’s being spun, the final moments and the last line spoken by Webb’s Lauren resonate. The new media landscape of the 21st century is now increasingly focused on the warping of truth, and the reporting of truth. Somewhere in there the truth itself gets lost.
Gray directs this entertaining thriller with plenty of heart, which shows in just about every aspect of the production. In the beginning this feels like any other dramatic thriller, yet it doesn’t take long for that to change. First the characters grab hold, then the plot takes you for a ride. Try as you might to guess where everything’s headed, Sugar Mountain is a penetrating look at how too many lies in a small town snowball into chaos, how even family can’t always be trusted, and just as it is in real life, the numerous twists are surprisingly unpredictable.
Are all small towns full of secrets? Those of you, like myself, who grew up in one: does Sugar Mountain and its characters feel genuine to you?
Sugar Mountain opens in theaters in the United States on 9 December 2016.
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