Sunday, 23 February 2014

Scene on a Sunday: The Impossible

I’m fairly comfortable with my position as one of the loudest cheerers for The Impossible this side of the internet, a 2012 film that was not quite maligned but existed in a space where effusive appreciation for it seems rare. It's a fine film for many reasons, not least among them is the fine work director Juan Antonio Bayona does in making the terrifying implications of the Tsunami play across the screen.

I’ve never been able to talk about The Impossible for long without acknowledging its thorny internet place as the ultimate sign of white-people-suffering films which has always come off to be as an especially disingenuous criticism of the film, as I've argued before.

Even ignoring the narrative issues one might have with the film, though, it’s difficult to ignore Bayona’s skill as a director and the excellent technical work on display in The Impossible.

I suspect the most difficult aspect of Sergio G. Sánchez (screenwriter) was the film’s opening ten minutes with Bennett’s. These are regular people to the point of being almost nondescript. Maria, a physician, wants to go back to work. Henry, her husband, seems vaguely bullish but all in a very minute ways, nothing exceptional. It’s just a typical nuclear family on holiday in Khao Lak. Business as usual really, and even as the Bennett’s are the film’s focus Bayona’s directorial focus is so often on the general and not the family’s specificities it’s hard not to realise that the film’s thrust is more general than personal.

Like this aerial shot of the resort, very business as usual.

This moment, like almost everything before, is essentially set-up. There are the generic shots of the tourists until the sound stops and a blender goes out.
Something is coming, we know what and yet the moment manages to be tense as a leaf of Maria’s book flies away.


It’s an interesting point to note, it’s that same leaf flying away which opens the film probably an indication of the randomness of life. More interesting is the book’s title The Heart of Darkness. I ponder on the use of Conrad’s text and its implications considering its subject of a European heading into the land of the “native”, although knowing how obvious that is Bayona’s use of the text here seems almost deliberately subversive. This is not a tale of the white man being unable to deal with nature’s peculiarities, but a horror tale of how mother nature does not care who stands in her way.

And, I mention a horror tale not as incidental point because I’ve noted before it’s how best I think of The Impossible. Yes, within that, a tale of randomness of life, the unpredictability of the world, but most of all how that randomness is so horrific and the most terrifying things about the world can be the natural ones. Because, what’s more terrifying than nature – the power of which is impossible to harness.
 The tension building in these moments is excellent. Watts entire performance is about reacting to things, often without speaking.
And, that’s the shot. The final moment before everything is wrecked.
Last year was such an excellent year for cinematography Óscar Faura didn’t make my list of 23 best shot films but he does good work here, and I’m looking forward to see what he does with The Imitation Game later this year.
These aerial shots are more than Bayona showing off his special effects but getting to the root of The Impossible. In a surrounding about to be totalled by nature, it’s not specialness or worth that makes anyone survive but just ineffable randomness of chance. But, more on that later.
True destruction has not been wrought as yet. Why do we think we can do anything to counteract nature at its worst? For example, I love this shot of Henry trying to shield his children from the oncoming waves by…doing what exactly?

 I’m not sure. If the waves are meant to destroy them, him holding on won’t save them and yet it’s just an example of our humanness. Henry is a parent, and he can’t help but try to protect in the face of the impossible. Just like Maria can’t help but scream for Thomas in the hope that her voice will, do what…?
Who knows.
 (Isn't that an image straight out of a horror film?)
It’s so obvious she’s trapped she doesn’t even try to foolishly run.

 She simply waits for the waves to come and when they do we cut to….
...more on the scene below as we get to the other side of the black out...

In a way this is such a terrifying moment because it leaves us in the dark. For a bit I wondered whether Bayona was going to leave us to imagine the destruction without showing it. More than a few second of blackness and silence pass, blackness fading into browness and the water gurgling until the loudness of the waves comes at us and we’re met with this.

Maria holding on for dear life, and Bayona doesn’t care to stay with her.

The Bennett’s are who we are taking this journey with but this isn’t just about them. Bayona’s camera is always undercutting any inclination we might have to focus with impunity on the emotions of the Bennett’s. Each time we get too close he pulls back to show the world around us giving us perspective, as if to say, everyone else is suffering, too.

But, Naomi, though. It’s a wonder that this performance ever became a staple at award ceremonies last year because it’s such an unusual one. How to make the single emotion of fear sustained for such a long time with any nuance? If you remember the clips shown for her last year it becomes even clearer how this performance – excellent as it may be – lacks the single-scene moments of a typically nominated performance. Kudos to them for recognising her.
And the folly of humans rears its head again as Maria bounds from (relative) safety around the tree to reach her son.


Bayona doesn’t let them have it easy either.
 This could be such an easy moment of emotion heightened to effect.
Except, it’s not.
More turbulent waters ahead.

In a chilling moment we hear the cries of the people in the vehicle as Lucas swims by once again making it difficult for us to focus on Lucas and Maria and their hopes of survival when it’s so clear how many others are having their lives destroyed.
 And in a nice switch we get Lucas on a limb now and Holland sells this moment. Lucas has been marked by his need to be grown up until now when he breaks down sobbing. His debut work here reminds me of Jamie Bell’s Billy Elliot’s turn in some regards. Would that his career goes better than Bell who’s bizarrely never managed to get the roles worthy of his talent.

Lucas spots his mother across from him, at first fearing she is dead he begins to sob but realising she is not he swims towards her. And we finally get the embrace we’ve been building towards.
“Mom! Never do that to me again, Mom.”

They swim to the trunk of a nearby tree.
“I was a brave kid mom,...but I'm scared.”

Maria's I'm scared, too is harrowing. Is it over, Lucas asks.  And, that look of Naomi there speaks volume. Who the hell knows if it’s over? When is it ever really over, even? Who can predict the unpredictable?
And in typical style we don’t end the scene on her face but with an aerial shot.
At quick glance try to pick them out in that image? The fact that they’ve survived isn’t indicative of them being special but just an ineffable indication of life’s fickleness.

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