Billed as a wilderness survival thriller, “Sugar Mountain” is in fact more of a potboiler involving a romantic triangle and ill-conceived fraud scheme. None of those elements grow very compelling over the course of Aussie director Richard Gray’s Alaska-set feature, which is polished without ever achieving much in the realm of suspense or emotional involvement. The moderate marquee value of Jason Momoa and Cary Elwes (though the former has only a few scenes) should help smooth access to home markets. But in any format there’s unlikely to be great excitement over this middling drama, which opened on 10 U.S. screens (as well as in Toronto) on Dec. 9.
The West brothers have lost their mother to lung cancer, but inherited her business catering to sporty visitors in the titular resort town. (The film was primarily shot in and around Seward, a fishing port and tourist destination in southwestern Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula region.) Unfortunately, they’re going under, with the bank impounding the boat their charter trade depends on for overdue payments.
It’s blustery, short-attention-spanned Miles’ (Drew Roy) bright idea that they solve these financial woes by staging a disappearance in the nearby frozen mountains, then sell the “miraculous survival” story to the media for big bucks. Nice-guy sibling Liam (Shane Coffey) is not at all thrilled by this plan, especially since it requires him to express covetous jealousy over Miles’ loyal girlfriend/co-conspirator Lauren (Haley Webb) — for whom he has secretly pined since childhood. This play-acted fraternal conflict will up the publicity stakes when Miles allegedly “vanishes” during a hike, raising the possibility of foul play.
Everybody falls for the ruse at first, including Lauren’s police-chief father (Elwes), who orchestrates search parties to roam the sub-zero wilderness. But of course, best-laid-plans soon unravel — in part due to the discovery that Miles has significant gambling debts owed to a menacing local character (Momoa), but also because his absence opens a space which the long-repressed attraction between Liam and Laura rushes to fill (via a somewhat ludicrously overblown sex scene). Meanwhile, it begins to look like Miles’ faked mortal-peril scenario might well have turned into the real thing.
Originally set in his and the director’s native Australia, Abe Pogos’ screenplay is complicated enough. But Gray’s execution arrives at a middle-of-the-road tenor that lacks (among other things) the tragic sense of inexorable cruel fate seen in “A Simple Plan” or grotesque black comedy in “Fargo,” to name a couple better films about ordinary people whose seemingly harmless criminal-fraud schemes turn very harmful indeed. Despite a fairly eventful narrative, the proceedings feel a bit turgid, as the character dynamics seldom surprise, and not much tension accrues, with disappointingly scant screen time given over to Miles’ wilderness sojourn. (John Garrett’s widescreen lensing of the spectacular local scenery is handsome, but despite its hook, this is a movie largely driven by indoor arguments.)
Even a brief, panicked encounter with a bear is oddly tepid as staged here. By the time “Sugar Mountain” springs a belated burst of action — including a car chase and one subsidiary figure’s not-dead-after-all revival — the effect feels more desperate than exciting, with a soap-operatic plot revelation heightening the strain. It’s all meant to be bitterly ironic in the end, but “Mountain” simply doesn’t have the depth to pull that off.
Though ultimately frustrated in creating fully dimensionalized figures, the actors do decent work. Those who tune in for “Aquaman” star Momoa, however, will be irked to realize his bad guy (while key to the story) only appears in three or four scenes.