I’ve hiked in the Swiss Alps but I’ve never climbed a rocky mountain. Hell, I’ll probably never even visit Nepal much less get close to Mount Everest. (I’m more of a warm weather/balmy climes type of guy.) But after seeing Baltasar Kormakur‘s Everest (Universal, 9.25) I really and truly feel like I’ve done it all — flown into Kathmandu, climbed the foothills, stayed in the base camps, climbed the damn mountain, run out of oxygen, gotten hit by a rogue blizzard and nearly died. And in 3D with actors I know and like dying around me. But I made it down and recovered and got up and walked into the theatre lobby and hit the bathroom with 12 other guys and thought to myself, “Wow, it’s nice to be alive in a warm sophisticated city with all the amenities. But I’m also glad I just went through hell just now…a blind, howling, frostbitten hell at 29,000 feet.”

It’s a helluva thing, this film, because it doesn’t cheat or exaggerate or use CG that you can spot very easily, and because it puts you right into the grim horror of what happened to eight climbers trying to ascend Everest on May 10th and 11th of 1996. Climbers who were eaten by a mountain that does not suffer fools and doesn’t give a damn about anyone or anything. A mountain that looks at climbers making their way up and says, “You guys think you’re tough and ballsy and maybe you are, but you’d better get used to the possibility of a slow painful death and never seeing your loved ones or pets again. Because I will fuck you like a pig if I get into one of my moods.

I’ve killed more than 250 climbers since the early 20s, and don’t presume you’re not on the list, pal. I can kill anyone, including experienced climbers. Because if you’re fool enough to climb this high and under these conditions, it’s actually pretty easy.”

Everest is realism at its most immersive and forbidding (the 3D is so good you don’t even notice it after a while), and a very strong docudrama with several actor-characters you get to know and like and care about, and edited with exactly the right amount of discipline (there’s no padding or deadweight) and clarity and feeling. It delivers real sadness but it doesn’t squeeze it out because it doesn’t need to. It just lets the facts wrap themselves around you.

And every performance is straight up and real-deal but especially from the two stars, Jason Clarke and Josh Brolin. One survives, the other doesn’t. Clarke plays New Zealand-based commercial climbing guide Rob Hall and Brolin plays Beck Weathers, a Texas doctor who was one of Hall’s clients during the fateful climb. Everest is largely (though far from entirely) about what happens to these two, although there’s more than enough stress and grief to go  around.

Jake Gyllenhaal has a supporting role as Scott Fischer, a competing climbing guide. John Hawkes plays Doug Hansen, one of Hall’s clients who could almost be seen as a kind of bad guy in that his foolish determination to reach the Everest peak well after the safe hour not only ends his own life but kills another. House of CardsMichael Kelly plays journalist/author Jon Krakauer with subdued conviction, and Sam Worthington has a small but noteworthy role as Guy Cotter, who did what he could to help the climbers who were stranded by the rogue blizzard that turned out to be the decisive fatal factor. And Thomas Wright plays Michael Groom, an Australian mountain climber working with Hall.

And there are the worrying women who keep tabs on who may or may not be living or dying through the tragedy — Keira “kiss of death” Knightley as Hall’s pregnant wife. (When a very significant character says goodbye to his wife at the airport and then she talks to him again at an Everest base camp 15 minutes later, you know the guy is toast.) There’s also Robin Wright as Brolin’s no-nonsense wife back in Texas, and Emily Watson as Helen Wilton, a Hall employee who was manning the radios and doing whatever she could to assist or send up oxygen or lend support of any kind.

I’ve seen Greg MacGillivray and David BreashearsEverest, a 1998 IMAX doc that focused on the ’96 disaster, and also Beyond The Edge, the 2013 docudrama about Sir Edmund Hillary‘s ascent of the mountain in 1953. Plus two or three other docs about Everest that I can’t remember the names of. I’ve been dipping into the lore off and on since I was 10.

But Kormakur’s film is the shit — easily the most assaultive and intimidating (and yet oddly thrilling) recreation of the Everest environment I’ve ever seen or felt, and a riveting drama about guys who didn’t have to die but did, mainly because the commercial expedition leaders wanted their client’s money (each climber paid about $65K) and because they wanted their clients to feel satisfied, and because they chose to ignore warnings about developing bad weather.

Here’s the original N.Y. Times story of the disaster, dated 5.14.96 and reported by John Burns.

I wasn’t expecting Everest to be as good as it is because Kormakur’s last two films, Contraband (’12) and 2 Guns (’13), were escapist machismo popcorn fizz. But he has manned up and done the right thing with Everest, especially given the fact that realism has never been so out of favor in Hollywood these days as it is today. And yet Kormakur has delivered an epic thriller that is all about that highly precious commodity — a film that thoroughly respects the laws of physics — an almost unheard-of thing.

The fact that major studios, the only entities that can afford to make big-scale, knockout escapist fare, have more or less divested themselves of reality-governed action thrillers has been a huge development over the past 10 to 15 years.

Said it before, saying it again: The nerd comic-book fantasy superhero CG bullshit aesthetic has all but destroyed an amazing realm that movies could and should get into — i.e., bad, threatening real-world stuff that can happen to you in the wrong situations or from dealing with the wrong people but rendered realistically and not in flagrant defiance of physical law, so you can believe in at least 95% of what you’re seeing.

Everest is therefore a huge shock — a film that actually respects the rules of nature and plausibility and takes your breath away all the same. That is one helluva thing.