Movie Review: Three Peaks (2017)

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You know how it goes. You meet someone and you get a crush. You start dating, you find out they have kids, and suddenly your attraction to them moves beyond all the superficial stuff. You see them together and get a glimpse at what real life with them might look like instead of the best behavior version of you both that you put on for dates.

You meet the kid(s) and hope they're as crazy about you as you are about them. You begin spending time at their house — it's easier, after all, for them — and maybe move in. Things go well at first. Every night's a slumber party until the power games start and then suddenly it's not. They take up residence in your bed and your relationship suffers as they test your limits in a mildly annoying way that could escalate if you lose your cool and handle it wrong. You're on icy terrain and you start to slip. It's harder for you if you fall; if it ends, you lose at least two and they're only out one.

And while for you it means a break-up, in Three Peaks, it could cost Aaron (Alexander Fehling) much more — a limb perhaps or maybe his life. Wanting to remedy this problem and find better footing before an avalanche, Aaron takes Lea (Bérénice Bejo), his beautiful girlfriend of two years and her eight-year-old son Tristan (Arian Montgomery) on vacation to the Italian Dolomites.

Patiently teaching Tristan to hold his breath and swim in an opening scene that comes full circle in Three Peaks later on, shortly after they journey up to a cabin nearer to the peaks, Aaron begins to feel like they've forged a stronger connection. However, when Tristan goes from calling Aaron dad — which in itself weirdly freaks out his mom — to talking to his actual dad nonstop on a cell phone he's given him in secret, we realize that Aaron's breakthrough with the boy is short lived.

Emotions ping-ponging all over the place, though the two have their moments, Tristan acts out, habitually sleeping in their bed to usurp his mom for himself (and kill any chance for romance) before seeing what happens when he grabs Aaron's hand saw and places it across the man's arm.

An unsettling and provocative domestic thriller — hot off the festival circuit — in cinematographer turned writer-director Jan Zabeil's sophomore feature film, he drops us right into the heart of the discomfort to make us an honorary member of this small makeshift family.

Empathizing the most with Aaron, it's through his eyes that we see most of the conversations between Lea and her son as well as Tristan's manipulation of his mother play out. In a critical scene that speaks volumes for its honesty no matter how much it might hurt, Aaron tells the woman he loves that there are moments when he feels so close to Tristan and others where he feels like the boy's suffocating Lea and wishes he that he wasn't there at all.

Needless to say, it's a two way street. And while this sentiment is undoubtedly shared by the boy too young to articulate it in any of the three languages that he speaks, Zabeil also lets it reverberate off of the awesome yet daunting landscape of the Dolomites that — much like a new member of the family — lets you get only so close to it before it pushes you away.

A favorite technique of the filmmaker, Jan Zabeil previously employed nature as a vital backdrop in his acclaimed 2011 debut effort, The River Used to Be a Man. Addressing this in a director's statement in the Peaks press notes, he reveals his love of using the external to symbolize internal emotions and shares his belief that "away from the securities of the civilized world, my characters become less deliberate, more emotionally truthful and are likely to lose control over their actions."

Making the metaphorical link to the environment a dangerously literal one in Peaks, this is precisely what happens in the film's third act when Zabeil moves what had thus far been a domestic drama firmly into nail-biting thriller territory. It's a gamble that works well initially but doesn't quite pay off. While the emotional build-up was always going to erupt, even after Three Peaks takes its first deadly turn (sans hand saw), Zabeil seems hesitant to go along, waiting until the desperate final minutes of the film to fully commit to the new, darkly suspenseful tone.

Nonetheless a highly compelling endeavor, Three Peaks boasts superb cinematography by talented lensman Axel Schneppat and knock-out turns by newcomer Montgomery as Tristan and Fehling as Aaron. Unfortunately, as her character hems and haws and changes her mind almost as much as her young son, it saddles the usually impressive Bérénice Bejo with an underdeveloped role.

Still mostly effective, the work is sure to keep you riveted . . . even if it might just scare you off the next potential mate you meet with kids as, no matter how many times you've lived the first part of this plotline before, trust me, when it comes to Three Peaks, you don't know how this story goes.

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