Max Lowe’s documentary “Torn” tells a story that has all the ingredients of epic literature: Fallen icons. Damaged families. Love. Obsession. Suspicion. Acceptance. If it were a narrative feature, it would probably be a harrowing drama about the death of a patriarch, the rejection of a new father figure, and a climactic search for a corpse, painted against a backdrop of frozen peaks and empty homesteads.
But “Torn” has no sense of theatricality or grandeur, even though it’s about the death of a man who was, arguably, the greatest mountain climber in the world. Filmmaker Max Lowe isn’t a journalist uncovering the secrets of a legendary sportsman who died too young, nor is he a sensationalist lionizing the achievements of a godlike hero. He’s the son of mountain climber Alex Lowe, and he’s far less interested in the thrills of adventuring than he is in what it’s like to grow up without a father, because his father prioritized his obsessions over his family.
“Torn” spends a good deal of time reminiscing about the early romance between Alex and his wife, Jennifer, and swiftly glosses over the seven years of their marriage where he was free to scale leviathans without worrying about children at home. But then came the compromises, the many months away from his sons. Alex Lowe was a darling of the mountaineering circuit, and his legend loomed large over his children — Max, Sam and Isaac — but he wasn’t actually with them all that much. And when he was, Jennifer frankly recalls, he was perpetually antsy to go off on his next adventure. He was not, she repeats, “a perfect character.”
Alex’s story was cut abruptly short by an avalanche in Tibet, leaving his children without a father and his best friend Conrad Anker trying to fill the void in their lives. What started as a friendly attempt to care for grieving loved ones grew swiftly into a romance between Conrad and Jennifer (now Jennifer Rowe-Anker) and, for their sons, a lifelong question over which of these mountain climbers they should call “Dad.”
Max Lowe affectionately chronicles Alex’s early adventures and approaches the aftermath with unease and suspicion. His probing questions to his mother and stepfather never accuse, but they do leave room for any confessions they’d care to share. He asks Conrad to his face what it was like “filling the physical space in the house that used to be Alex’s,” and it’s nearly impossible to listen to that question without throwing an asterisk on it. That’s deep and personal under any circumstances, but when asked by your own stepson, it throws a shadow over the room.
That’s not to say that Max Lowe is harsh or accusatory. What he is, and what he seems to admit by the end of “Torn,” is a son who never really knew his biological father and struggled to adapt to his stepfather. “Torn” is superficially a documentary about a famous mountaineer, but it’s really the story about a young man trying to understand why a father would risk his family to go mountain climbing most of the year, and why this other mountain climber was able to find a more harmonious balance. What does it say about Alex Lowe that Conrad, who never fully gave up a life of danger himself, still seemed more eager to care for Alex’s kids?
Watching the interviews with the family, one suspects that Jennifer has come to terms with her life and the people in it, the ones she loved and the flaws that defined them. But the three sons seem far less comfortable broaching the subject of the past. The subject of fatherhood is a little confusing, a conscious decision they have to make instead of an innate acceptance of their family unit. You’d be hard-pressed to find a single shot of Max, Sam or Isaac as adults in “Torn” where they don’t look at least a little sad, if only because the documentary is asking them to probe their grief anew.
“Torn” culminates in a journey to find Alex’s body and bring him to rest, a development which conceivably could have provided the framework for a grandiose Western, or at least a weary travelogue. To their immense credit, Max Lowe and writer-editor Michael Harte never let these events slip into melodrama. They never sacrifice intimacy for suspense, or love for sensationalism.
Maybe they’re willing to insert just a little of judgment, celebrating the perpetual comforts of family and home, and letting a history of sporting greatness stay in the past, but who could blame them? It’s a deeply personal documentary, candidly reflective and disinterested in flattery. It brings titans down to Earth.
“Torn” opens in New York Dec. 3 and Los Angeles Dec. 10.