Monday, January 7, 2013

Swept Away: THE IMPOSSIBLE


J.A. Bayona’s The Impossible is exactly what it wants to be and you should know what you’re getting into. It’s a film in which a recent real-world natural disaster is recreated in horrific detail. I almost couldn’t handle it. Perhaps the filmmakers couldn’t either, choosing to tell one small story instead of taking in the disaster in all its disturbing immensity. Rather than attempting to tell a wide, generous panoramic story set during the devastating December 26, 2004 tsunami that wiped away miles of Thailand, the film narrows in on the plight of one vacationing European family. It’s through their eyes we see the wall of water drown a picturesque resort in the blink of an eye. It’s their plight we follow in the aftermath as, heartrendingly separated, they struggle to survive, locate medical help, and find one another. This has the effect of lessening the big picture while making it all seem like a particularly bad instance of a spoiled vacation, but the acting is so strong, the filmmaking so powerful, that it’s overwhelming (for better and worse) all the same.

The film’s opening scenes are structured with the suspense of a horror film. Even if you somehow managed to stumble in blind, unaware of the impending tsunami, the opening title cards will quickly let you in on the disaster that’s about to unfold. We meet a nice young family, a father (Ewan McGregor) and mother (Naomi Watts) with a young teen boy (Tom Holland) and a couple of towheaded youngsters (Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast). They check into their hotel. They open their Christmas presents. They swim in the pool and party on the beach. These scenes of comfort and fun are, much like the opening of any slasher film that follows a group of carefree youths into the woods unaware of the masked killer awaiting them, tense. We know what’s about to happen; it’s hard to be comfortable while awaiting the sudden arrival of discomfort.

And arrive it does. Through enveloping special effects, the family is swept away in a scary swirl of muddy waters that overpowers then recedes, before spinning back around to scrape away even more of the recognizable features of the land. Amidst the fallen trees, downed utility lines, and jumbled piles of debris, the mother and her oldest son find themselves entirely alone, cling to what little they can find, and painfully make their way to help. They don’t know where to locate it or even where, exactly, the sudden catastrophe has deposited them in relationship to their hotel and their loved ones, but they continue to move anyways. Rest will surely equal death. Watts and Holland do fine work here as people forced to move forward on instinct and determination alone, the full extent of the destruction and the possible deaths of their entire nuclear family unable to fully sink in while they drag their bruised and bloody bodies to safety.

This is shell-shocked filmmaking that made me wince and squirm. I’m not the most squeamish filmgoer around, but this is uncommonly effective, harrowing stuff that had me asking if this is really what the MPAA is calling PG-13 these days. The camera moves with the young boy, capturing a kind of horror that will off-handedly find grotesque body horror in the edges of the frame, then stop to linger just long enough for the full grossness to sink in, before quickly averting the gaze. Walking behind his mother, he catches a glimpse of her leg with a large flap of skin dangling loose. When he alerts her to this fact, she turns, her shirt ripped revealingly, exposing her chest and her lacerated skin. The boy winces and averts his eyes. Later, scenes at an overwhelmed hospital catch glimpses of ripped and mangled bodies, loose limbs, and drips of unidentifiable liquid. At one point, a wretched retching sound fills the soundtrack as Watts, slightly out of focus in the middle distance, vomits what appears to be plant matter and is joined by a nurse who quickly helps her pull what appears to be a tangled vine out of her throat. Reader, I’ve managed to sit through bloodier films of splatter and gore without once shielding my eyes, but this scene had me looking away, wishing for it to end. I wanted it out of my head.

But I suppose that speaks to the power of Bayona’s filmmaking. This is an overpowering experience. It eventually cuts away from mother and son to discover the fate of McGregor and the two little boys – I won’t spoil it here – and the script by Sergio G. Sánchez and María Belón orchestrates nearly-unbearably teasing moments of sentimental suspense as the various main characters survive, or don’t, and are reunited, or aren’t. In the end, I cried a little, but felt so emotionally mangled by the film that I almost wished I hadn’t. It’s undeniably effective, but the small scope, which, although beneficial, making the devastation personal and slightly more manageable, begins to feel like it’s doing the event itself a bit of a disservice by limiting the full impact.

In the film’s final shots, the camera flies away with survivors, peering back at the destruction while gliding away from the island and out over open waters. It’s a survival narrative that’s ultimately only about escape and not about the ramifications for the people – and supporting characters – left behind. I was more than ready to escape; I was glad to escape. But I wondered if a film less single-minded could have found room to tell a small, simple story without losing so much of the big picture. The ending plays triumphant, but the film was so effective that by that time I was exhausted.


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