Synopsis: The unforgettable story of the 30-year-old climber Tom Ballard who disappeared on the so-called killer mountain, Nanga Parbat, in 2019.
Stars: Tom Ballard, Kate Ballard, Karim Hayat, Alex Txikon, Stefania Pedreriva
Director: Chris Terrill
Running Length: 107 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: Through Oscar season and now during writing for the SXSW Film Festival, I go through many documentaries. The subjects can be anywhere from the immigrants of the war in Sudan to the costume design of a Polish opera, all the way to meeting a man who makes specialty guitars. They tend to be my favorite films to discover each year, and I’m constantly amazed at how filmmakers can stitch together narratives using footage they discover as well as film they shoot. For me, the best kind of documentaries have found that balance while also knowing what story they are most focused on, remaining unwavering in their goal.
There’s a sense early on in Chris Terrill’s The Last Mountain that he’s heading in the right direction by concentrating on the life and legacy of Tom Ballard as well as his sister’s journey to visit not only where he perished, but where their mother died nearly twenty-four years earlier. The history of tragedy in this family of mountain climbers is fascinating, as are the dynamics existing between the father and daughter that remain. Terrill has been with this family for years, first gaining access through the initial success of Alison Hargreaves then witnessing the impact of her loss while coming down from a mountain in Pakistan.
When her son, Tom, became a well-regarded climber himself, home movies show that he felt the shadow of his mother’s legacy and her death hang over him early on. Perhaps that’s why he was drawn in 2019 to the same mountain range where she died, eventually succumbing to the same fate. Facing the need for resolution and closure she never got for her mother or brother, sister Kate decides to return to the mountain and say goodbye to the family she lost. Retracing a journey she made as a child, also documented by Terrill, Kate reconnects with a local man that served as a nanny of sorts to her and began the pilgrimage to begin true healing.
Had Terrill stopped with this story, he’d have had an Oscar-worthy (maybe winning) short documentary that radiates emotion and tells a rich narrative of one family deeply impacted by a specific drive to achieve. The trouble is that this is only half of The Last Mountain and the other half of the movie that Terrill cuts back and forth from tells more about the events that lead to Tom’s death and the man he was with when he died. Suggesting his climbing partner was perhaps more inspired by fame and notoriety than Tom feels like punching low and not in the same spirit as the rest of the movie, giving an awkward tone to the proceedings. Nearly every time Terrill returns to Kate, I felt my emotions rise in response to the sadness of a sister and daughter trekking across the globe to the final resting place of her brother and mother. Anytime we switched back, all the air went out of my sails.
Using the Ballard/Hargreaves home movies and incredible video captured of the mountains Tom and his mother both ascended, The Last Mountain would be best viewed in a theater or on the largest screen in your house. It’s worth it mainly for the scenes documenting the family that was and never will be again, frozen in time on video while two bodies rest forever on a mountain range in Pakistan.