Imagine a man who actually is everything the world tells us a great father should be: bursting with outdoorsy vitality, good with a chainsaw but also able to teach his son a gentle keyboard duet. Imagine he is sensitive, yet strappingly masculine, that he works a sophisticated job (an architect perhaps?) but is also a strong swimmer and a mountaineer who gives great piggy-back.
This is Aaron, played with Viking presence by Alexander Fehling, and he is the greatest father that Tristan (Arien Montgomery, in an astonishingly adept juvenile performance) could want — except he’s not his father. And it is that hairline fracture in the edifice of an ostensibly happy family vacation that Jan Zabeil’s superbly crafted, utterly gripping “Three Peaks” traces, following it so far into the frozen yonder that by the time we hear the cracking of the ice, we’re out too far to turn back.
Tristan’s biological father, George, has been out of the picture (literally, he is only ever heard as a burbled voice on the phone) for two years — that’s when his mother Lea (Bérénice Bejo) left him for Aaron. Her guilt over this is crucial: George is a good father to Tristan, so while she wants her new man and her beloved son to bond, she is wary of Aaron supplanting George. But in one of the finely observed long takes that make this slender 94 minutes feel longer, we watch Tristan watching a sleeping Aaron during one of their mountainside excursions. The little boy contemplates his de facto stepdad — his wiry beard, broad shoulders. And, like he’s trying it on for size, he ventures, “Papa?”
Aaron wakes at the word, like it’s the reward he’s been waiting for, but back down in the cabin later, a strained exchange with Lea will see her shut down his hopes. “But he doesn’t have two fathers,” she says. “He has one.” She even recoils, sympathetically but firmly (Bejo is very good in the least-developed role in this three-hander) when Aaron plaintively suggests that “Papa” could “just be a word for a feeling.”
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All the correct feelings might be in place — even occasional frustration and ambivalence — but seemingly that cannot trump a deeply held, perhaps unconscious belief in the traditional, nuclear configuration of familial relationships. And in the early part of the film, we really feel for Aaron’s outsider status, especially drawn with such empathy by Fehling, who was previously stranded in the wilderness by Zabeil in his 2011 feature debut “The River Used To Be A Man.” When they first arrive at the cabin and he points out the eponymous peaks (a famous feature of the Dolomites in northern Italy), Tristan immediately identifies the two larger ones as Mama and Papa, and the smaller as their child.
Such potentially on-the-nose moments, and references to a myth about a monster, a rib-bone and a giant with two hearts, could sound schematic, as if Zabeil, who also wrote the script, is forcing us to recognize patterns and themes that might remain unexplored otherwise. But the actors are so committed that the words sound unforced — even in the clever mix of languages which itself becomes a signifier, triangulating each character’s allegiances. Tristan won’t speak French to his mother anymore, and more often replies in English (the language of his father) or German, which is the language of his home, and Aaron’s native tongue.
“Three Peaks” devolves from taut family drama, to survival film, to something closely resembling a horror movie. In fact, its final-act twist may be a twist too far, as the focus shifts from Aaron to Tristan, and it becomes less about the meaning and price of fatherhood than an explosion of another pernicious myth: that of the essential innocence of children.
But the film carries audiences over any blips in believability (let’s just say everyone here seems peculiarly immune to hypothermia) with its performances, and by the exceptional precision of craft. Axel Schneppat’s stunning cinematography equally serves the forbiddingly fanglike mountains and the micro-expressions that flit across the actors’ faces. And the combination of an evocative, scoreless soundtrack and Florian Miosge’s razor-fine editing creates an atmosphere of peril long before the inevitable disaster actually occurs, from the simple juxtaposition of otherwise benign elements like the chopping of wood and the creaking of a rope swing.
And so the mood remains ominously unpredictable, switching from tender to malicious across a single cut, until the film has audiences squirming at offscreen mouse squeaks and filled with dread by the sight of a blue backpack resting against a rock. This jittery, heightened feel (which pays off in scenes that suggest Zabeil has in him a murderously tense genre thriller) pulls the film out of the realm of strict realism and into a kind of allegorical state, in which identities crumble and bonds are dashed in the looming shadow of that monolithic concept of family as Mama, Papa and child.