Film Review: Sugar Mountain

After four previous features since 2010, director Richard Gray may finally have his breakthrough film with this extraordinary crime thriller set on a sun-dappled Alaskan coast.
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With movies, the phrase "looks like a million bucks" doesn't mean what it does anyplace else—a million bucks is nothing. But with a budget of just $1.2 million (virtually nothing), Australian director Richard Gray has crafted an engrossing, visually stunning crime thriller that looks like it cost many times that. Making full use of widescreen and of natural locations, Gray in his fifth feature conjures breathtaking images that never overwhelm an intimate story of two brothers in suffocating straits, and a simple plan that goes disastrously away.

That was a deliberate allusion to Sam Raimi's 1998 crime thriller A Simple Plan, which Sugar Mountain captures in feeling. Like the rural Minnesota trio of Raimi's movie, here brothers Liam (Shane Coffey) and Miles West (Drew Roy) and Miles' girlfriend Lauren (Haley Webb) craft a perfectly sensible albeit illicit scheme amid an all-encompassing Alaska cold that weighs them down like a heavy chain. They likewise find themselves in a complicated web of loyalties, love and lies, but the similarities end there, with first-time feature writers Abe Pogos and Catherine Hill crafting a tale completely specific to the environment and culture of the 49th state. The filmmakers build on well-observed details of life there while taking a broader swipe at easy media manipulation—which for a movie shot in early 2014, long before Donald Trump's Machiavellian tweets and the ascendance of fake news, seems prescient.

Reeling from a big insurance payout after an accident aboard their charter boat, soft-spoken Liam and fast-talking Miles are in danger of losing their livelihood vessel. Their late mother "captained this thing for 21 years. And we lose it in three," Liam laments. But they have a month before it's auctioned off, and Miles has an idea: He'll hike up into the mountainous desolation that surrounds the town like a wall and hide in a cave for 10 days. Liam will report his brother missing, and when the prodigal returns after ostensibly surviving hypothermia, dehydration, wild animals and the elements, the brothers will sell some TV or movie producer the rights to their story. To help make it convincing, Miles and Liam stage a public fight over Lauren the day before, and fill up Liam's diary with unrequited love for his brother's girl. Complicating matters is Lauren's father (Cary Elwes), the local police chief, who has his suspicions, and a hulking brute with wolf-like cunning (Jason Momoa) to whom Miles owes money. Well-placed twists and feints atop all this ratchet up the emotional stakes.

Gray and director of photography John Garrett make smart use of the spectacular setting—Seward in real life—with world-class cinematography of not only ferocious peaks, blinding snow and black-mirror waters but of grimy-grey streets, leveled but not paved, or of homey, weathered buildings, or a boat impound yard. With whatever tools they had at their disposal—including a non-CGI wild bear near the actors and a rock-steady drone shot crossing in front of an oncoming boat—the filmmakers pack enough production value to make Sugar Mountain one of those films you would do well to see in theatres and not wait for home media.

The script matches the visuals grace note for grace note, with precise yet naturalistic dialogue and a story that never lets the methodically evolving plot overshadow the lives caught up in it—including that of Momoa's thug, who makes even the word "please" when ordering drinks sound effortlessly menacing, just part of who he is. Alies Sluiter's score and, hell, even the film's sound design are top-notch. My one complaint: Are there no lawyers in this town? Or parents who will sit with their young child as he's being questioned by a threatening police officer?

Regardless, Richard Gray, with Sugar Mountain, proves he's a director of the first tier. Sweet.

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