It gives Ben Givens (Tom Skerritt) a bit of a headache to see a young couple in love in “East of the Mountains,” even when he should be elated that they’ve picked him up off the side of the road in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest after his SUV has overheated. While his ruby red Ford has stalled, their VW van of a vintage decades earlier is as energetic as they are, holding hands and beaming as they’re beckoned by the open road that looks more and more like a dead end to Ben, a year removed from the death of his wife Rachel. The kindness of strangers can be irritating when one wants to be left alone, though Ben keeps finding himself at their mercy when he heads for the hills, claiming to be out to hunt for a few days but perhaps having a different use for his gun when he recently received a diagnosis of cancer.
Ben’s desire to keep a secret has made everyone a stranger to him, leaving daughter Renee (Mira Sorvino) to worry how he’ll do on his own, but in SJ Chiro’s compassionate adaptation of David Guterson’s novel, it’s the moments when you see how much others care for him even without knowing him that give it life. That, and a lovely performance from Skerritt, who is in fine form as the former cardiac surgeon whose own heart is broken completely, letting few on to how defeated he is under a stoic demeanor and occasionally allowing some old humanizing details out in order to keep up the ruse. Ben is given a reason to live when his dog Rex, his lone companion these days, is attacked in the wilderness, leading him to seek out the help of a vet named Anita (Annie Gonzalez) and vengeance against the owner (John Paulson) of the coyote dog who took his gun after he fired it to defend Rex from further injury.
When the present offers little solace, Ben is left to drift back into the past, provocatively seen by Chiro and screenwriter Thane Swigart as much as a danger as it is a comfort when it distracts from engaging with the world. Memories of meeting his wife are vivid, but in the generosity the filmmakers extend to even the most fleeting of characters who all are made to feel as if they have full-fledged lives of their own, others push their way into Ben’s consciousness in how openhearted they are towards him as if to yank him from his isolation. Whereas Chiro previously envisioned the highway as an escape for a young woman who learned how to depend on herself in “Lane 1974,” it could be a path to nowhere for Ben without the detours that lead him to put him back in touch with his humanity, learning of what his absence has meant to others and what he has in common with people he’s just barely met. It’s fitting that Les Hall’s guitar score can sound as if it’s stumbling towards grace as it trips over strings, and while cinematographer Sebastien Scandiuzzi can’t help but find the beauty in the wide open landscapes of Eastern Washington, it’s a hopeful view of human nature that makes “East of the Mountain” resonant.