Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A Gut-Wrenching Experience

The Impossible, the story of one family's struggle to survive the wrath of the deadly 2004 tsunami that his Southeast Asia, is a gut-wrenching film, one that grabs hold of the viewer from the start and never lets go. It is gripping, highly emotional and a first-rate piece of filmmaking that captures the monstrous power of nature as well as the tender love of humanity.

Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, the film focuses on the story of a British couple and their three young boys who have traveled to Thailand for the Christmas holidays. Only a few minutes into the movie, the tsunami hits their idyllic oceanside retreat; the recreation of this disaster is stunning in its detail, visual and aural power and emotional punch to the stomach.

At first, the images are quiet; a poolside blender suddenly stops, a wind quietly picks up and blows away a page from a book that Maria (Naomi Watts) is reading, a flock of birds takes wing from nearby palm trees. And then... there is that sound - the sound of doom, of the oncoming wave of destruction. The visuals in recreating the tsunami are amazing, but a great deal of credit also goes to sound designer Oriol Tarrago for his outstanding work, as the sounds as well as the sights of the force of the storm overwhelm us. Especially noteworthy are the sounds of characters gurgling and spitting out water that they have swallowed as the storm carries them on its deadly path. At times with an underwater camera, we cannot see exactly what is happening, which adds to the confusion and terror of the immediate moment so these random sounds only heighten the drama.

There are basically two story lines here; the first (and strongest) is that of Maria and Lucas, who have been joined together in the destruction. She has been severely injured, as her leg has been cut along the storm's path. Lucas, who is terrified, suddenly has to become a man, tending to his mother, as he ultimately leads her to whatever medical help he can find. Holland, who is 16 years of age, is excellent in his role, especially in the scenes in the hospital, where he willingly helps other survivors try to locate their loved ones. His sudden strength is one of the major points of this film, as we learn how the human spirit can triumph over incredibly strong odds.

The other subplot deals with Henry (Ewan MacGregor), who not only has been separated from his wife and oldest son, but also his two youngest sons, Thomas and Simon, who are both under 10 years old. I've admired MacGregor for some time for his naturalistic acting style and he's quite good in this role. He has a much-talked about scene in which he phones a far-away friend and breaks down, sobbing uncontrollably. It works beautifully and in all seriousness, it's one of the most honest scenes I've ever witnessed in a film of a man crying. His fellow survivors in this scene, each desperate to connect with a loved one, feel his pain and we the audience do as well.

There has been a fair amount of criticism regarding the sentimentality of this film. Is it overly sentimental? Well answering that is like asking if someone is "excessively jealous." To borrow a line from the great 1959 courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder, "what's the norm of jealousy?" If this film is too sentimental in its tone, well that's up to the person watching this work. It is a film that pushes human emotions to the forefront, but I never thought it became maudlin or syrupy.

There have also been some attacks on the makers of this film for not doing enough to show the human loss of this tsunami. Some critics have pointed out that 230,000 people lost their lives in this disaster, yet the film deals only with this family and a few dozen other individuals. I don't know what these critics wanted, as the story of this family (based on the true story of a family from Spain) is quite engrossing. Perhaps the creators of this film should have included a card in the final title sequence honoring the dead; I would have liked that, but I don't think the film suffers because of this omission.

I also want to mention the outstanding work of cinematographer Oscar Faura, whose bright, deeply saturated images at the beginning of this film stand as an ironic contrast to the starkness of the wrecked landscape that we see throughout most of the movie. In between these visual tones, the natural lighting and look of the hospital where many of the survivors are being treated is extremely well done. This is the work of an accomplished cameraman; I would have liked to see him receive an Oscar nomination, but this year as in most years, there are eight or ten films that could get this nod, so it's not necessarily a slight to Faura that he wasn't nominated, but he is certainly someone to take notice of.

I would have also enjoyed seeing composer Fernando Velasquez get a nomination for his marvelous score, but it didn't happen. I think it should have, as this is one of the three of four best scores of the year. It is quite romantic at times, especially in a scene of some of the family members reuniting; perhaps some thought his score was a bit over the top. I don't think this was the case at all, especially when he provides a wonderful cue with nervous strings underlining a scene in which the two young boys are being driven away in a truck with other survivors to who knows where. It's a taut, nervous cue, one that perfectly suits the fractured emotions of the characters (as well as the audience, who want to see a family resolution). The score stands beautifully on its own and let's just say that if John Williams or the late John Barry or Jerry Goldsmith composed this score, they would not only have received an Oscar nomination, but it would have been labeled an "instant classic." (think of the score for Out of Africa by Barry or The Russia House from Goldsmith or Schindler's List from Williams and you'll get an idea of the quality of this musical opus.)

For a film that has received so many positive reviews, it's become a bit unhip lately to praise this film. Well even if that's the case, I don't give a damn. I was moved by this film and I am certain most people will be as well. Congratulations to director J.A. Bayona for making this film the way he wanted to, by highlighting the human emotions that saved this family. One particular sequence that is one of Bayona's best moments occurs near the end of the film when Maria undergoes anesthesia before her surgery; her inner thoughts are on display visually as we see her body float underwater amidst the debris of the storm. At one point, we see the light of the sun from above change this image from that of devastation to one of hope. It's a striking, moving, emotional image that is perfect for this scene and for the overall tone of the film.

You'd have to not own a soul to not be affected in some strong way by The Impossible, especially in the final scene where Maria sees the storm's destruction from above. Watts is perfect in this scene, as she is in just about every moment she is on screen. Her strength is something we can all admire and hope we can display under times of hardship. We may never go through the struggle Maria goes through in this film, but we can identify with her strong will to live. What a lovely message!