The Impossible

the-impossible-movie-reviewOver 220,000 people died in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The Impossible is the story of five people who survived. This family — a doctor, a businessman, and their three young sons — are Spanish in real life, but in this international production, written and directed by Spaniards, they are played by an Australian, a Scot, and three British kids. I linger on the film’s lineage up front because it has become something of an issue — it focuses on the suffering of white people in Thailand, the fourth hardest-hit country during the disaster — and I was prepared to be annoyed by it on that basis. In fact, many people from many different nations died in (or survived) the tsunami. And Maria Belón, the doctor played in the film by Naomi Watts, chose Watts for the role because Watts is her favorite actress.

Do I wish I lived in a world where $45 million is spent on a film about a Thai (or Spanish) family dealing with the aftermath of a catastrophe? Sure. But this is the film we got, and it’s a pretty good one. The tsunami strikes without warning about fifteen minutes into the movie, and director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) avoids jacking it up for disaster-movie thrills. Bayona puts more emphasis on the dazed viewpoint of Maria as she’s battered by the wave and swept off for what seems like miles before she manages to find her eldest son Lucas (Tom Holland). The destruction is enormous, incomprehensible, and we wonder how anyone could have survived it on a moment-to-moment basis, never mind actually making it to civilization. Somehow, though, Maria and Lucas find their way to a village, and the badly injured Maria is uncomfortably hastened to the nearest overcrowded hospital.

Meanwhile, Maria’s husband Henry (Ewan McGregor) is desperately checking every hospital and body bag for Maria and Lucas (the other two sons seem to have made it more or less without a scratch). The Impossible then becomes about the apparently insurmountable logistics involved in getting this family back together. Henry had better hurry, too, because things aren’t looking so good for Maria, whose leg is terribly infected and who earlier vomits up some grotesque black thing — Bayona shows his horror roots here. A couple of bits when Henry finally finds the right hospital, and he and Lucas just miss each other in the hallways, are drawn out a little irritatingly. But it must be hard for filmmakers to resist playing on that kind of audience frustration.

Everywhere you look in the frame are death and suffering, but also compassion and people doing their level best to deal with the monstrous after-effects. Movies like The Impossible drive cynics crazy, but they put the lie to apocalyptic scenarios where it’s every man for himself. It takes a mature artist to acknowledge that life isn’t paranoid pulp like Mad Max, and to do it right and convincingly. Technically impeccable, The Impossible gives the brutal caprice of nature its due, never romanticizing it or demonizing it. Many wide shots give the sense of very tiny people living in a very large world that sometimes shrugs its shoulders and gets rid of a few hundred thousand of us. A terrible awe takes hold: We are all one geological or atmospheric quirk away from all of this being erased forever. The East Coast got a taste of this last October. There will be more, and there will be worse. Welcome to the new normal.

In opposition to this we have friendship and strangers banding together and family members trudging knee-deep in mud and corpses to find each other. The Impossible feels tough-minded about its subject in a way that elevates it above the usual Hollywood gibberish that finds inspiration in mass death. Fernando Velázquez’ score gets a bit thick here and there, especially since the visuals render it redundant. The family, with the help of Watts (an ace at suffering), McGregor, and the terrific newcomer Holland, comes across as a typical unit, amiably getting on each other’s nerves, bonded as much by irritable familiarity as by love. We feel there’s something there worth preserving. There are no big speeches; the dialogue is terse and, for long stretches, absent. Eventually, as Maria undergoes more surgery, we come full circle with a flashback showing us more of what happened to her; this is some of the most painful violence I’ve ever seen in a PG-13 movie, suggesting fleshly trauma instead of rubbing our noses in it. This flashback is vertiginous and horrible and oddly poetic. It’s an epic bad dream, a nightmare that shades into the morning after, when the real challenge begins.

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