Speaking about the death of a fellow rock climber in Jimmy Chin’s latest documentary, Free Solo, adventurer Alex Honnold comments monotonously that it just wasn’t the climber’s day. That chill-wave attitude descends on young Alex for most of the film, even when he’s climbing 2500-foot mountains with glass-like sides without the assistance of rope or a safety harness. What’s not chill about him is his dogged determinism to climb El Capitan, a huge formation located in the Yosemite National Park. In fact, one could almost call him obsessed with the feat.
This is where filmmaker Chin and his crew come into play. Following Honnold as he prepares and scopes out the trek (along with a host of ramblings he has with both himself and newly acquired girlfriend Sanni in the tight confines of the van he calls home), Free Solo becomes a study of rock climbing in all its geographical precision and, quite honestly, the free-spirited lunacy that must exist somewhere in the heads of such thrill seekers.
As the main focus, Alex is a bit of a one-note personality. The aforementioned casual dismissal of a respected fellow climber dots his outlook most of the time. Even when friends (and at times the filmmakers themselves) try and weigh the pros and numerous cons of attempting a free solo climb of such a mammoth formation, Alex settles into his very ‘dude-like’ shell and processes things internally.
What’s not one-note, however, is the film’s final third that writhes and jolts the viewer along a tense trip one won’t soon forget. And even more interesting is the fact that the filmmakers themselves almost become the impetus for there not to be a film. Just when Alex settles on a date and time to tackle his obsession, he aborts at the last minute, stating that the filmmakers and their omniscient presence has in some way tainted the purity of his climb. It’s all very meta, and whether it’s manufactured for dramatic purposes or not, it adds a ‘soap operish’ aspect to a film that’s already mastered the concept of suspending remarkable tension.
Produced by National Geographic films and directed by Chin (who helmed the similarly themed Meru in 2015), Free Solo conforms to a specific template of human-versus-untethered-nature that the production company loves to explore. Free Solo, however, overcomes the normalcy of the genre through the sheer experience Honnold establishes for himself and the very real stakes it raises at every thumb grip and foot sweep he makes.
Free Solo opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, October 5 at Angelika Film Center in Plano and Cinemark’s West Plano theater complex.