Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Impossible ***½

Director: J.A. Bayona
Cast: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland
Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast, Geraldine Chaplin
Marta Etura, Sönke Möhring

If you've seen the trailer for The Impossible you may think you've seen it all/enough. The preview notoriously seemed devised to squeeze as many tears as it could from its viewers as it praised the courage of the human spirit, and yes, they weren't lying, the film does highlight a family's struggle during one of the most tragic natural disasters in recent history but when it comes to its actual cinematic qualities the film stands closer to being a horror movie than it stands to being an old fashioned weepie.

Based on the true story of a Spanish family, the film opens a few days before the tsunami that ravaged Thailand on December 26, 2004. We first meet Maria (Watts), her husband Henry (McGregor) and their kids Lucas, Thomas and Simon (Holland, Joslin and Pendergast respectively) as they are on the plane on what was supposed to be a wonderful Christmas vacation. From the start, director Bayona seems to be setting the stage for something unconventional, given that the movie is bookmarked by a similar moment, time by which the characters' lives have changed forever.

It takes just a few scenes into the movie before we hear a thunderous roar and see terrifying waves approach and take everyone and everything standing on their path. Maria and Lucas end up together, trying to make their way to a hospital after she's endured some gruesome injuries. Henry and the younger children also find themselves in the same geographical place and the movie spends most of its time trying to get the family back together. Needless to say so, and this is in no way a spoiler given that the film is based on real events, the family does get back together, but the terrific thing about Bayona's movie is that it's never only worried about reaching this emotional crescendo. In terms of mood, the film is always closer on the verge of existentialist horror than simplistic melodrama.

Bayona gained international fame after directing The Orphanage, a Gothic horror movie that failed because it tried too hard to connect its stylish visual references to the trite plot it tried to impose on viewers. In The Impossible, the director achieves precisely what he seemed to have been aiming for in his previous movie because he proves that the terrors inflicted by nature are always more sadistic and impossible to comprehend than those suggested by the supernatural. The movie then is often a terrifying voyage into the very heart of darkness (it's no coincidence that Maria is reading Joseph Conrad on the plane) as we see some of these characters contemplate if survival is what they really want.

The entire cast is extraordinary, with little wonder Holland infusing his scenes with liveliness and controlled fear and McGregor achieving a new landmark in terms of his wonderful screen presence. He has a small miraculous moment where he turns a phone call into a heartbreaking representation of true suffering. Is there any other actor whose tears pierce our hearts in this way?  The film however belongs to Watts, who takes on this character with ferocity and soul. The physical struggles Maria goes through are nothing compared to the way in which Watts emits primal screams - sometimes just using her eyes - as she faces the possibility of death and the even worse idea that she might leave her child alone.

Usually films about real life tragedies trivialize the emotional impact precisely by assuming that the universal can always be found in the specific. Bayona knows that the story of this family isn't the story of "everyone", in  fact he makes a point out of letting us see the physical context of the story we're watching. The director is aware that his movie wouldn't have been made if it didn't portray Caucasian, upper middle class fear, after all  stories of foreign tourists were among the most famous in the wake of the tragedy and there is something quite subversive in how he knows this and uses it as a way to challenge our ability to identify with characters as an audience. At all times we're aware that there are people suffering around these families, that their pain is in no way lesser than the ones of the characters being played by the movie stars. We see people from all walks of life being reduced to wandering souls trying to find the will to stay alive, even despite their better knowledge, but the film doesn't concentrate on them and it seems in a way the main characters are unaware of this fully, but isn't this desire of self-preservation actually quite truthful? Aren't our loved ones the objects of our worries and distress when tragedy strikes?

By the time the film ends, Watts has a moment where Bayona allows her to externalize everything she's been holding in for the entire movie. In a single scene she lets us see how the world has changed in a matter of days, we know that she might be leaving the place of the tragedy but that the pain will probably never leave her mind. We see how for the first time she's opening her eyes to a world she had been prepared to ignore. Bayona is merciless without being cruel as we both pity her for the amount of nightmares that will haunt her for as long as she lives and envy her strong need to stay alive if only because that's the thing she knew how to do best.

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