Three Peaks is a thriller of a decidedly unconventional sort. There are no bad guys. There’s no nefarious crime plot, or case of mistaken identity. There are no car chases or fistfights or guns. There’s only one instance of deliberate physical violence, and that ends almost as soon as it begins. And there’s no soundtrack music, or pulse-pounding momentum, or fancy camera tricks propelling things forward toward a nail-biting finale.
Nonetheless, Jan Zabeil’s German-Italian film, debuting in theaters this Friday, June 28, is a work of gradually escalating suspense, born not from exterior threats or supernatural fiends but, instead, from the fraught dynamics of a trio of characters, whose vacation in the Italian Dolomites grows ever more uncomfortable. By its conclusion, at least one member of its central trio will go missing, instigating a frantic search and requiring someone to risk life and limb in a rescue attempt. Those developments, however, are the culmination of a taut portrait of one makeshift clan’s uneasy emotional circumstances, and the potentially perilous danger that comes from failing to reconcile them.
Bookended by scenes set in water—Zabeil’s camera bobbing up and down on the surface, and occasionally diving below to spy attempts at strained communication—Three Peaks concerns Lea (The Artist and The Past’s Bérénice Bejo), her adolescent son Tristan (Arian Montgomery) and her bearded boyfriend Aaron (Inglourious Basterds and Homeland’s Alexander Fehling), who together head off to the mountainous middle of nowhere to stay in a cabin and hike the surrounding rocky, snowy area. While it’s not immediately revealed, Lea and Aaron have been together for two years, but he’s not Tristan’s father. The reason for Lea’s divorce remains murky to us and to Tristan, who eventually turns to his mother for details about her split from his father that she’s unwilling to divulge. Such caginess is ostensibly driven by Lea’s belief that the kid isn’t old enough to hear such adult truths, although her refusal to address the subject in a straightforward, honest manner nonetheless comes across as odd—and, to some extent, wrong-headed.
Tristan is thus in a strange spot with Aaron, who despite having been with Lea for a considerable amount of time, is still struggling to fully connect with the boy. Theirs is a bipolar relationship—one second, they’re playing in the pool happily, with Aaron teaching Tristan to swim, and the next, they’re estranged by anger at resentment over the fact that each views the other as an intruding nuisance. Aaron confesses to Lea that he loves Tristan like a son, but it’s also apparent that, for example, the boy’s constant habit of sneaking into their bed at night—thwarting any chance at sex, or even intimacy—makes him pine for the kid to take a hike. Similarly, Tristan flip-flops wildly between embracing Aaron as a parental figure, to the point of even cautiously calling him “daddy” in one instance (as if giving the term a test-run), and fleeing Aaron to snuggle at the bosom of his mom.
That Tristan’s dad keeps phoning him on a cell that Lea didn’t even know existed only exacerbates the fractured mood. More problematic than those constant interruptions, though, is Lea herself, who obviously wants the threesome to function as a happy, healthy unit, and yet who compounds things by telling Aaron that he shouldn’t try to be a father figure to the boy—“I think you should be careful. I don’t want him to be confused between you and his dad”—and whose babying treatment of Tristan often leaves Aaron on the outside looking in. Three Peaks suggests that Lea’s protectiveness is her means of counteracting her guilt over having left Tristan’s father for Aaron. However, that doesn’t make it any less ill-advised, as illustrated by the rising tensions between the two men in her life.
Zabeil’s script lays out the inner workings of his protagonists’ relationships at a leisurely pace, and at times, his patient approach threatens to drag things to a standstill. Fortunately, his script has a way of interjecting telling comments into virtually every exchange (in German, English and French), thereby turning seemingly innocuous incidents into honking red flags about impending trouble. By doing away with any trace of music, the writer/director further creates a sense of escalating pressure—the silence in this region, marked by scraggly hills and snow-covered peaks that are often visually obliterated by whipping clouds of mist, is borderline deafening.
Just as restrained as his soundtrack is Zabeil’s camerawork, which likes to crowd in close to his actors’ faces so that every reaction—to a minor rejection, or a major act of kindness—is writ large. By maintaining such proximity, his cutaways to distant panoramas attain additional power; the juxtaposition between near and far reflects his characters’ push-pull feelings toward each other. So too do frequent shots that separate Tristan, Aaron and Lea in the frame, stranding them on opposite sides of a figurative chasm they don’t know how to cross.
Three Peaks is like a powder keg primed to explode, and once Tristan begins subtly acting out against Aaron behind Lea’s back—first with a mousetrap, then with a handsaw—a detonation comes to feel inevitable. A more clichéd effort would have succumbed to third-act fireworks as a reward for enduring such a slow-burn build-up. But Zabeil rejects predictable paths.
As befitting a work that features only three actors, Three Peaks rests, to a large extent, on the sturdy shoulders of Bejo, Fehling and Montgomery, whose performances are marked by a subdued expressiveness that highlights how each one of their characters is wrestling with inner questions for which they’ve yet to find suitable answers. Zabeil’s film is likewise cagey when it comes to neat-and-tidy revelations and resolutions, situating itself in a quietly volatile space where emotions are as unsteady as the terrain itself—and liable to give way at a moment’s notice.