The Impossible (2012)
On December 26, 2004, an underwater earthquake triggered one of the deadliest tsunamis on record, devastating coastal cities along the Indian Ocean. Over 230,000 people are believed to have perished from the waves and resulting damage. The Impossible tells the harrowing and ultimately inspiring true-story of one family and their vacation from hell. We follow Marie (Naomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor) as well as their three sons, from oldest to youngest, Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast). They’re vacationing in Thailand for the holidays and then the tsunami hits, separating Marie and Lucas from the group. They are swept away by the punishing waves and Marie is badly hurt. Henry is desperately searching for his loved ones, Lucas is desperate to get his mother proper medical attention, and there are thousands just as desperate and just as in need.
It’s nigh impossible to watch this movie and be unmoved. It’s not very subtle when it comes to its themes and messages, but man is it ever effective. The family struggle could have easily descended into melodrama with a sappy, maudlin reunion, punctuated with swelling music to hit you over the head. It’s a fairly simple story with little to its plot. The family gets separated and then they desperately search for one another and, surprise, they reunite. It is after all based on a true story and they all lived, so there’s that. It’s the startling level of realism, the exceptional performances, and the poignant moments of human kindness and grace that suckered me in big time. I was an emotional wreck throughout this movie but in the best way possible. I cried at points, sure, but my tears and my emotions always felt genuinely earned. There’s no doubt that this is one manipulative movie. It knows what strings to pull, what buttons to push, and it does so with finesse. Last year I decried Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close for being overly manipulative and overdosing on false sentiment. However, with this movie, my investment was never in jeopardy. I was completely absorbed by the story and felt great empathy for the array of characters as they persevere. The horror of that 2004 tsunami is told in one small story, personalized, and giving an entry point for an audience to engage without feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of destruction and death.
Let me go into further detail about that wall of destruction, given astonishing, terrifying realism. The recreation of the tsunami ranks up there as one of the most frightening sequences I’ve ever seen in film. It’s a solid ten minutes of chaos, and you will feel the frenzy of that chaos. You’re put in the middle, floating along with mother and son as they helplessly try and cling to one another. The scope of the disaster will leave you gasping. I know they must have used sets and water tanks but I’m left stupefied how it all came together to look so seamless. It sounds macabre to compliment the marvelous recreation of mayhem, but director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) and his team have turned disaster into world-class drama. It’s not just the powerful waves as well, there’s the field of debris just under the surface to contend with. When the first wave hits Maria, we experience her complete disorientation. The sights and sounds are blurs, the water oppressive, and the debris sudden, jolting, unforgiving. It’s the closest any person would ever truly want to get in the middle of a tsunami.
The majority of the film is about the family coming back together, and while their reunion is indeed a tearjerker, I found the film littered with many small moments that just soared emotionally. When a disaster of this magnitude hits, I’m always struck by the wealth of human kindness and cooperation that emerges in response. There’s something deeply moving about helping your fellow man in need, even if you cannot understand his or her language. Maria is aided by the Thai locals who do not treat her differently because she’s a white woman. She is just another person in need.
Whenever disaster strikes, we think of the people who plunge into the middle as heroes, but simple acts can be just as comforting and thoughtful. There are small moments of kindness, like lending a stranger your cell phone to call home, that speak volumes. In that one instance, Henry is so distraught, the weight of everything hitting him as he tries to put it into words, and his call is abrupt and somewhat incomprehensible thanks to his rising emotions. Henry is urged to call back, not to leave it at that, to leave his relatives dangling with such precious little and the alarm in his voice. So he’s given the phone again, and in a more measured demeanor, Henry is able to talk about the situation and promise to find his wife. It’s such an everyday gesture made invaluable to Henry. There’s a woman talking to Thomas about the stars in the sky, how we don’t know which are dead but they continue to live on, and the subtext is a bit obvious but it’s still heartfelt. Then there’s Lucas’ mission of organizing the triage center, scouring the grounds looking for missing family members. He takes it upon himself to make a difference rather than sitting idle. It’s that human connection in the face of adversity that proves most uplifting.
Watts (J. Edgar) gives a performance of tremendous strength and fragility. The tenacity and resilience she has to keep pushing through is remarkable. She’s so strong but vulnerable at the same time, showing you the fine line she walks to stay above the fray for her child. She endures great physical trauma, a gnarly gash in her leg peeling off like tree bark. Then there’s the emotional burden of trying to be a mother to a child desperately in need of a sturdy parent. Watts could have readily played to the heights of the emotions, resorting to hysterics, but the quiet strength of her character makes her underplay the burdens she endures. She can’t simply just break down. You don’t get a true sense of the toll she has suffered until her life-and-death struggles at the very end.
The supporting team around Watts also deserves accolades. McGregor (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) has several heartbreaking and heartwarming scenes, striving for hope. Lucas has to rise to maturity when his mother is wounded, protecting her, supporting her. Acting novice Holland rises to that challenge with great courage, though there are moments that still remind you he’s only a boy, like when he bashfully turns his back upon seeing his mother’s exposed breast. That awkward, indecisive moment where a young boy doesn’t know how to handle the sight, seeing his mother so exposed and vulnerable, is quite effective. The other actors who round out the family (Joslin and Pendergast) are quite superb as well. The family feels like a cohesive, loving unit, and every performance feels believable.
The Impossible is based upon the true experiences of a Spanish family, and yet the onscreen family we follow is white, so what gives? It’s not surprising for Hollywood to whitewash a story to appeal to a wider audience. Should we have any more sympathy for this family’s plight because they are white? Would we feel less if they were Spanish? I think the perils and victories would be the same regardless of language or ethnicity, but I can’t fault the producers for snagging talent like Watts and McGregor. If you have actors of this caliber that wish to come aboard, then by all means change the ethnicity of the characters. I was too consumed in the story to care that much about this facet.
Watching the unflinching and stunning events in The Impossible, you will likely shed some tears, be they from horror, sadness, or happiness at the family’s reunion. While the ending is never in doubt, the movie has plenty of other potent and poignant small moments to keep your emotions safely stirred. It’s a visceral experience that will shock and exhilarate. There were moments where I felt like I had to cover my eyes. But The Impossible is not disaster porn, ogling over the suffering and endurance of the misfortunate. It’s as much about the response to tragedy as it is the wallop of that cruel tragedy in 2004. The perseverance, the open-hearted help of one’s fellow man, the strength of human connection, the long ripples of kindness, it all comes together to form one compelling, often moving, and quite memorable film experience. Add some formidable performances, top-notch direction, and tremendous technical achievement, and The Impossible is a rousing drama that speaks to the best of us even in the worst conditions (think of it as the antithesis of Ayn Rand’s philosophy). It may be manipulative, it may be somewhat straightforward, and it likely climaxes too soon, but when the results are this powerful and emotionally engaging, then I’m happy to have my buttons pushed.
Nate’s Grade: A-