Directed by: Juan Antonio Bayona
Written by: Sergio G. Sánchez (screenplay) and María Belón (story)
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts and Tom Holland
I’ve seen a lot of movies during my life, but The Impossible was a first. It was the first critic screening that I almost walked out of. It’s not because it is a bad film, but ten minutes into the screening I wrestled with the notion that I might not be able to sit through the entire movie. As a mom and a human being, The Impossible is one of the most harrowing experiences I have ever sat through in the theaters. It’s extremely well done, but it’s misery porn from start to finish. Watch at your own risk.
The Impossible is the fictionalized account of a family who survived the devastating tsunami that descended on Indonesian shores in 2004. The family that the story is based on is Spanish, but in typical Hollywood fashion, they have been portrayed as white, well to do westerners who are vacationing on a resort when all hell breaks loose. Naomi Watts plays Maria, a mom who is contemplating whether or not to return to work as a practicing physician. Her brood consists of three boys and her husband Henry (Ewan McGregor). The family cavorts at their vacation resort when an eerie silence blankets their surroundings. Mere seconds later a giant wall of water crashes across the pool, engulfing everything (and everyone) in its path.
Director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) presents an impressive action sequence as the tsunami topples trees, buildings and cars. It’s similar to the scenes in Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter (2010), but this set piece pulls you into roiling waters as you follow Maria’s desperate struggle to survive certain drowning. With claustrophobic precision, Bayona depicts Maria being tossed about and colliding with sharp metal and trees before she is ultimately able to cling to a pile of refuge, riding out the rest of the disaster.
Miraculously, Maria is able to make contact with her eldest son Lucas (an impressive Tom Holland), who must instantaneously become a man as he becomes privy to visual horrors no child should ever see. Severely wounded by a ghastly leg injury, Lucas and Maria forge toward safety and medical care, all the while plaintively screaming for their other family members.
The duration of the film depicts the horrors of the aftermath of the tsunami including makeshift triage medical centers housing some truly unspeakable human suffering. Much like the days after 9/11, families post heartbreaking missing person bulletins, hoping against all odds that they will be reunited with lost loved ones. It’s almost unbearable to watch. There’s a bit of comfort knowing the actual outcome of this family’s tale, but all the misery and suffering curtailed any uplifting take away for me. It’s a relentless onslaught of pain and sadness, and it is a tough watch.
Bayona’s execution is top-notch. It took over a year for special effects teams to produce the ten-minute tsunami scene, and the quality shows. However, the film suffers by concentrating on this (very) white family, and relegating Thai locals to caretakers and background characters. It would have been easy to cast Spanish actors in the roles, so it seems odd that Watts and McGregor were cast as the protagonists. Clearly the decision was rendered for the film’s bottom line.
That being said, Watts and McGregor are excellent. Watts is always reliable, but her visceral turn in The Impossible had me squirming in my seat from discomfort. McGregor has a nice turn as the anguished father, and a quiet scene with him on the phone with relatives will probably garner him an Oscar nod. Holland is an amazing find.
The Impossible is one of the year’s best, but I’ll tell you exactly what I told the studio rep on my way out of the screening: great movie, but I have no idea who I could recommend it to. It’s that disturbing. – Shannon