Also known as the Savage Mountain, K2 is a beast that famously defeats one in four hardy explorers who attempt the climb. Freshman feature helmer Nick Ryan, meanwhile, has some difficulty conquering the subject in “The Summit,” a heartfelt, handsomely mounted but structurally slipshod doc about an ill-fated 2008 climbing mission that saw 11 out of 25 mountaineers perish under mysterious circumstances. Clearly targeting the crowd that made “Touching the Void” a surprise success in 2004, this reconstruction-heavy pic isn’t quite galvanizing enough to be an equivalent crossover hit, while its questionable Irish bias may rankle some auds.
Ryan, who also produced solo, has attracted an impressive array of name collaborators to his debut: Exec producer John Battsek had a hand in such films as “One Day in September” and “The Imposter,” ace lenser Robbie Ryan is best known for his feature work with Andrea Arnold, and writer Mark Monroe scripted the Oscar-winning docu “The Cove.”
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It’s arguably Monroe’s contribution, however, that winds up hindering the film most. In seeking to uncover the truth about what happened on K2 to cause such a tragic and unprecedented death toll, he has settled on an ambitious but somewhat momentum-stalling narrative structure, one that repeatedly replays events from different participants’ perspectives. The proceedings come to resemble a sort of docu-“Rashomon” in which a preponderance of blind spots and personal grievances obscure more than they illuminate.
This could be an interesting approach in a more dispassionate film, but it doesn’t sit well in one that has selected a hero: Irish climber Ger McDonnell, whose disappearance on the descent remains particularly unaccountable. Through he interviews McDonnell’s team members and loved ones, Ryan crafts a theory that the man died attempting a hazardous rescue of three doomed fellow climbers — flying in the face of the “every man for himself” rationale held by most of his peers — that is as possible as it is unprovable.
Undermining the accounts of other survivors (notably Italian Marco Confortola, whose ordeal was possibly the most publicized in the media) in pursuit of this narrative, “The Summit” becomes troublingly complicit in the heated finger-pointing among its talking heads.
The film is more rewarding as a physical evocation of the fear and euphoria experienced by these brave men and women who thrive on the impossible. With the thrill of the climb conveyed via a disconcertingly fluid blend of authentic video footage and remarkable re-enactments shot by the director’s team on K2 itself, the mountain remains very much the star of the movie.
Shooting in glistening widescreen (the aspect ratio shrinks in the interview segments) in collaboration with Steve O’Reilly, Robbie Ryan’s trademark eye for piercing daylight is key to the success of the reconstructed material, as is the careful casting work by Dorothy MacGabhann. Unusually, journalist Concetto La Malfa appears as a talking-head stand-in for the legendary Italian explorer Walter Bonatti, a choice presumably prompted by Bonatti’s death last year, but a distracting one all the same.