February 19
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The Horrors of Mountain Climbing Gone Wrong
by Jeremy Mathews

“Touching the Void”
IFC Films
Directed by Kevin Macdonald, based on the book by Joe Simpson
Produced by John Smithson
Featuring Joe Simpson, Simon Yates, Richard Hawking, Nicholas Aaron and Brendan Mackey
Not rated
Opening at the Broadway

(out of four)

One of the recurring visual motifs in “Touching the Void” is that of the camera pulling back from its mountain-climbing subjects to a wide shot of the mountain or landscape they’re on. As the shot widens, the climbers go from prominent figures to tiny, then invisible specks lost in a monstrous expanse of nature.

These shots hammer in the harrowing helplessness of the experience portrayed in the film, which is so rich in re-enactments that if it weren’t for the interviews explaining things, the film would be a dramatic work instead of a documentary.

The film details a disastrous trip in 1985 to climb a wall of the Peruvian Andes that had never been successfully climbed—and hasn’t been climbed since. Interviews with British climbing partners Joe Simpson and Simon Yates and their ground man Richard Hawking provide all the perspectives of the prolonged expedition as it unfolded.

Director Kevin Macdonald visually re-creates the events with extraordinary details and style. His technique starts off with a somewhat standard documentary look, although he also gets close-ups of things like the improbable look of a spike boot stuck in a giant mountain of ice. Simpson and Yates like mountain climbing because it’s fun and exhilarating, “except when it’s not.”

But things gradually get more dramatic as the climbers begin to make their way down the mountain and run out of gas to melt their water. Then some ice gives in and Joe breaks his leg.

The moment he realizes his leg is broken, Joe says, he realizes that he and Simon are going to die. This obviously isn’t true, but the film is utterly mesmerizing as it portrays this urgent, messy situation. Simon surprises Joe when instead of leaving “to get help” that wouldn’t arrive, Simon begins deploying Joe on a rope in a clever, if somewhat painful process. Then Joe falls off an overhang and ends up over a dark hole, unable to give Simon slack.

At this point, Simon, who can’t see what’s happening, has to make a difficult decision that Joe says he would have made, and cuts joe’s rope. The next day, both men assume that the other one is dead and make their own efforts to get down the mountain.

Stuck in the hole and barely alive, Joe has the more difficult time getting out. He is an atheist, which makes his need to live even stronger because even when he’s dying, he doesn’t fall back on prayers and believes that this life is it. So he takes a gamble and makes an effort to descend further down in the hopes of finding an opening.

Moving injured and malnourished, it’s a wonder that he made it. Simon and Richard assume he’s dead while he’s desperately trying to make it home and the days tick by.
All the interviews take place separately, and we get very frank discussions about the events and the various morbid thoughts that each person had. The film translates Joe’s experience of having no idea if anyone will be there if he does the impossible and makes it back to camp.

Macdonald uses various filters, photography techniques and editing tricks to portray the mind of a body that’s on the verge of shutting down. At one point, this horrifying scene is contrasted with a bad pop song, “Brown Girl in the Ring,” by Boney M. that begins going through Joe’s head. There’s a bit of morbid humor when he considers dying to this horrible song, and it’s recreated with the peppy fluff playing over disturbing visuals.

It’s rare that films actually place you in positions as extraordinary as this in a reasonable matter. “Touching the Void” surpasses recent films like the fact-based fiction of “Himalayas” because the ideas that accompany the story are based in existential dilemma. The people involved have to consider who’s life is more important and learn who’s urge to survive is greater. Richard says that he thought about which one he wanted to come back if only one of them did.

Simon and Joe put themselves in dangerous situations for recreation that allows them to feel life. When this life is endanger, it’s no longer fun, but it’s revelatory.

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