Bérénice Bejo might be the marquee draw in the polyglot indie thriller Three Peaks (★★★), but the former Oscar nominee for The Artist has not much to do over the course of the film’s very deliberately-paced 90-minute runtime.
Then again, not much happens in German writer-director Jan Zabeil’s nominal thriller, set among the snowy peaks of the Italian Dolomites. Seemingly happy couple Lea (Bejo) and Aaron (Alexander Fehling, Showtime’s Homeland) venture into the mountains with Lea’s 8-year old son, Tristan (Arian Montgomery) for a weekend of family bonding at Aaron’s cabin, and, on the surface, everyone appears to get along. Lea’s two special guys hike and play together, and despite a hint of tension, it’s all smiles, hugs, and chopping wood for the fire.
The one annoyance for Lea is that Tristan’s dad, her ex, keeps ringing the boy’s cell phone to check in on how his son is doing. Lea doesn’t want Tris to be confused by the two-dad situation, especially as she and Aaron are planning major moves for their future. But real dad keeps calling, and maybe the situation is confusing for Tristan. Or, perhaps the perceptive little boy has this situation all figured out.
The harsh, forbidding environment naturally lends an air of danger, and Zabeil confidently, quietly winds the suspense around the potential breaking point for either Aaron or Tristan. A darkly pregnant question looms over their mountain idyll: who feels most threatened here, man or boy? The solid performances, especially by Montgomery, don’t give much away, but add to the mystery. The characters’ fluent switching between German, French, and English, depending on their mood and intent, also subtly reflects the fraught atmosphere of domestic diplomacy.
Zabeil has an eye for staging scenes in the craggy, icy landscape. He and the movie’s cinematographer Axel Schneppat build towards what might happen using bluntly framed shots of the loving couple together, with Tristan, aloof, beside them, or with ominous views of the actual three Dolomite peaks that look down over the cabin. Adding only spare snippets of score, Zabeil stretches the tension to its barest limit before anything remotely thrilling happens.
The story, driven by suspense, starts to feel dragged out long before someone does, finally, hit their breaking point. Although, the film’s final act plays out with such ambiguity as to obscure who exactly does or doesn’t do what it appears they might have done. And that’s a meager treat for the investment of anticipation.
Three Peaks is not rated, and opens July 26 at Landmark’s E Street Cinemas. Visit www.landmarktheatres.com/washington-d-c.