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Disney+ Review: Torn

February 4, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

First time director Max Lowe explores his family history in the National Geographic documentary Torn, offering a complex and moving portrait of paternal figures and how families heal in the aftermath of tragedy.

Lowe’s father was famed mountain climber Alex Lowe, who died in an avalanche on Shishapangma in Tibet in 1999, alongside cameraman David Bridges, who was filming the expedition. Max was just ten years old at the time, and Torn explores the impact that his father’s death had on him, his two younger brothers Sam and Isaac, their mother Jennifer, and also Alex’s best friend and climbing partner Conrad Anker, who survived the avalanche.

Through an abundance of old home movie footage, and very emotional interviews with his family, Max uses Torn to sort through the complicated legacy of his father. Max admits that he looked up to his mountaineering dad as “Superman” as a kid, but the film finds adult Max grappling with the more complex, more human reality of who he was. What emerges is a portrait of a man who tried to be there for his family, but also had an insatiable thirst for adventure that he couldn’t ignore (Jennifer describes being attracted to him as a sort of “wild animal”), and was ultimately unable to resist the call of the mountains.

The film is really about how the family found ways to move forward following Alex’s tragic death, with Anker, who grappled with survivor’s guilt, seeing it as his duty to step in and try to fill the void left in his friend’s family. The film’s main through-line is how Anker became a new father figure to Max and his brothers, with Max in particular struggling to take to him, refusing to believe for years that his father was really dead since his body hadn’t been found.

A key part of Torn, of course, is the discovery of Alex Lowe’s body years later in 2016, which the film captures as a moment of both pain as well as catharsis for the family. It’s the small nuances of familial grief that the film does a good job of probing, such as how Max, as the oldest by four years, had the hardest time accepting Anker as a father figure, having had the most time to really get to know his biological dad.

Lowe’s film follows in the footsteps of Jimmy Chin (who appears briefly here) and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s back-to-back films Free Solo and Meru (which featured Anker as one of its subjects) as a documentary about mountain climbing that uses the sport as the backdrop for a compelling human story. In the case of Torn, we get a candid, intimate portrait of a grieving family finding ways to heal.

Torn is now available to stream exclusively on Disney+.

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