I forget what book it was, but it was new at the time, by a noteworthy Canadian writer, and had something to do a child or children being abducted. I was in a circle of a few other writers, all of them about fifteen years older than me and, most notably, all mothers. They were talking about his book, which I hadn't read. It came out that each one of them, at about the same point in rising action, had jumped to the end to make sure that everything came out fine, that the natural order got mostly reset. I couldn't believe this. As craftspersons, it seemed inconceivable to me that they'd balk the tension that this other craftsperson had so striven to build. And I told them so (there may have been free wine at whatever function this was). Here was their somewhat miffed response (free wine, remember): I wasn't a parent. I especially wasn't a mother. I let the subject drop and, maybe still a little incredulous, sought out another comped cup of vino.
Genuine suspense is no easy feat. It intensifies those fundaments of great storytelling, namely those that get you to care, in a physical way almost, about what will happen to a person or about events that happen in a story. Even more difficult is sustaining suspense in a story that everyone knows the ending to. Though some are of the mind that the final getaway in Argo was overwrought, there was a tangible tension in the theatre every night those faux filmmakers tried to catch their flight. We all know they get away, but still our fundaments scooch to the seat's edge. It really is something else when we can be brought to doubt a turnout we are already aware of. The Impossible was sold on the merit of it being a true story of the Alvarez family being exploded and then reassembled by the 2004 tsunami. So we go into the movie knowing that everything will turn out jake—the end's been skipped to for us—but the movie's job is to make us second-guess ourselves, worry and stress about whether everything actually will be okay.
The Impossible is, among other things, a suspense movie. It's also a horror and disaster movie. And it marries these elements pretty slickly, a ceremony officiated by young Spanish director J.A. Bayona. By all appearances, The Impossible seemed like an incongruous follow-up to his 2007 atmospheric creeper The Orphanage, but a subtly ominous opening dispelled whatever assumptions I had. To begin, Maria, Henry, and their three boys—now white and British—descend into verdant Thailand, mostly all smiles, an affluent family in vacation-y love with each other and their surroundings. The first trope that came to mind was the horror flick stand-by of a cheery family moving into their bright, new dream home, their dark demises the furthest thing from their minds. But the viewer knows better. Knowing the background of the movie informs us that something bad will happen, but Bayona reminds us visually, tonally, that these lives will be circumstantially bent to a breaking point. At one point he even adopts the POV of the oncoming sea, a waft of Jaws.
The family is splintered by the disaster, and most of the film is spent with a severely injured Naomi Watts and her oldest son, Tom Holland. It would seem Watts is drawn to the challenge of being brutalized in film, likes to begin so entirely pearlescent and see just how scuffed she can get. (See Mulholland Dr. or the American version of Funny Games.) In a switch of convention—because this is a real story—Watts, set-up to be the protector, is too hurt to fulfill her role, and so it falls to her young son, Lucas, to be the leader. Disaster, suspense, horror; The Impossible is also an incredibly cogent coming of age story.
The Impossible is good. I stress this because I frankly thought it was going to be fluffy tripe framed by real devastation. I'm a detail guy. A perfect detail can turn an okay work into a gangbusters one. In the calm after the disaster, Lucas and Maria are staggering single-file through the wreckage, and Lucas sees that his mother's calf is severely injured. He calls this to her attention, and Maria turns around. For the first time we and Lucas see that her shirt is torn and a breast is exposed. (ED If I need only one reason to despise Seth MacFarlane's "We Saw Your Boobs" Oscar song, this will do.) The boy says to his mother, "I can't see you like this."
I've got to say that this might just be one of the most genuine moments in any movie I've ever seen. It's rare that the puppet of a movie ever turns into a real boy, but that one detail did it. For me, these people became real, and so did their struggle. And I thought of that chat with those other writers/mothers, as muzzy with free booze as the memory was. With just that one line, I needed to know that these people would be okay, even though I knew they would be. Even though I knew that nearly a decade later they'd be gussied up and embracing on a red carpet photo shoot for a movie based on the worst thing that will ever happen to them, I needed to know that it would all work out.
Now I just want a glass of wine.
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