Not since Jaws has the sound of ocean water heard on a movie screen been so terrifying.
J.A. Bayona sets his riveting separation thriller The Impossible
during the 2004 tsunami that rose up from the depths of the sea and devastated Thailand. Doubtless there are countless stories of tragedy and triumph stemming from this natural disaster that could be told. This is one, and it’s remarkable.
On Christmas Eve, Henry (Ewan McGregor) and Maria (Naomi Watts) arrive in Khao Lak with their three sons in tow for a long-awaited family vacation. What strikes us about this clan is their ordinary behavior. Though they’ve checked into a luxurious beachside resort, they spend their days swimming in the hotel pool and exchanging Christmas gifts. The siblings argue while mom dotes, and dad nervously checks his smartphone and frets about a text that possibly suggests instability at his job.
The family’s minor troubles are washed away in the blink of an eye, only to be replaced with much larger and far more life-threatening concerns once the multi-story wave devastates the resort.
No matter what your area theaters charge, the tsunami sequence alone is worth the price of an Impossible
ticket. It is a breathtaking example of movie magic (if that term can be used for such a devastating and destructive force). It pounds Thailand’s shores and decimates everything in its path. During an unnervingly long sequence, we follow a submerged Maria as she tries to catch up with her oldest son, Lucas (Tom Holland), as the raging waters pummel them with debris. Bayona’s cameras immerse us in the chaos, and his use of sound to make us feel as if we are underwater is horrifying.
The tides eventually stem, though, and Impossible transitions from a story of immediate survival to a story of resilience under duress. The wave scatters and badly wounds the family members, forcing each to summon a previously untapped inner courage. Because of an injury to Maria, the simple act of climbing a tree to reach a safer (and drier) altitude requires the strength of 10 men, not the strength of a 10-year-old who’s too terrified to help his mom.
The cast impresses. Watts has never been content to rest on her beauty. The actress is attracted to physically and mentally challenging roles, and Impossible requires she plumb dark places as a mother hoping she can hold off her injuries until she knows her children are safe and secure. When we catch up with Henry, he’s consumed with searching for his lost family members, and McGregor makes sure we feel the man’s fears, his frustrations and his pain.
Bayona uses the carnage and devastation caused by the 2004 tsunami as a stunning backdrop to this human story of perseverance. While the production design on The Impossible is breathtaking, it’s the repeated acts of human kindness and generosity in the face of despair that elevate the film’s second and third acts.
Some at our Toronto screening used the word “schmaltzy” for the heartfelt emotions flowing through The Impossible, and that’s certainly possible. But this father of two was deeply moved by the resiliency and love shown by the family at the center of the film. Through the spectacular disaster effects and the unyielding performances of the entire cast, The Impossible earned its emotional beats. This and Michael Haneke's Amour ended up being the most emotionally honest dramas I was lucky enough to see in Toronto.