A tragedy doesn’t fully register with the public unless they experience it firsthand. Most of us weren’t victims of Hurricane Katrina; and though we watched in horror as countless people pleaded for help, their cries were merely television fodder – the kind of misfortune we remember wistfully through tributes and anniversary broadcasts. Truth be told, such natural disasters cannot be avoided, and in dire circumstances, we like to think we would have a complete handle on our rationale, but it is never so. The massive earthquake and subsequent tsunamis that killed over 230,000 people in fourteen countries in 2004 is arguably one of the most catastrophic events in our history. The blame lay, ironically, with the very thing necessary for sustaining life – water. Director Juan Antonio Bayona’s film The Impossible (Lo imposible) tells the harrowing story of one family nearly torn apart by the wrath of Mother Nature.
Henry (Ewan McGregor), Maria (Naomi Watts), and their three children Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) arrive in Thailand for a relaxing family Christmas. The weather is warm and breezy, and there is no sign of the ubiquitous snow commonly found piling up in wintertime. Not long after they get settled, Henry decides to play with his sons in the resort’s pool while Maria lounges with a book. Second later, a monstrous rush of the Indian Ocean mows down trees and houses before sweeping over the resort and tossing the occupants around like old rags. Henry, Thomas and Simon immediately go missing; Maria and Lucas struggle to reach each other in the raging current. All hope for survival is grim, and becomes more unlikely in the wake of repeated injuries (Maria is stabbed in the ribs with tree branches, has a massive chunk ripped from the back of her leg, nearly has a breast sliced off and is smashed in the head numerous times by foreign objects). Lucas tries to be a rock, but he is young boy clearly overwhelmed by the dramatic situation.
Eventually, we learn that Henry and the other children have not perished, but rather, have become misplaced among the broken landscape. A cemetery of terracotta roofs and mangled bodies stretches for miles as the garbled screaming of strangers looms in the distance. With Maria in a makeshift hospital awaiting a critical operation, Henry limps from place to place, holding his bloodied stomach, searching for the other half of his family.
I’m not the type of person that winces easily. I’ve watched some pretty brutal films with over-the-top violence and chaos, and none of them ever really got to me. I think somewhere, in the back of mind, I knew those films were creations, fantasy, and unrealistic. That notion took away any real-life effects there may have been. With The Impossible, things were much different. A smart audience knows that this horrific event actually occurred – and even more – that the family depicted is a real family. These people are about as random and ordinary as it gets. They had done nothing to place themselves in the path of destruction; there was no bad planning or idiotic decision-making that led to their plight. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. In essence, they represent any one of us who may have been unlucky enough to visit the coast of Thailand in December 2004.
For their parts, both Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts were excellent. Most of the recognition is being given to Watts, since her character seems to be the main focal point throughout (she gets the majority of the injuries and her survival is never promised). For most of the film, we see her slipping in and out of consciousness, dealing with bouts of depression and agonizing over the idea of her leg turning black (which will mean amputation). All the while, her oldest son Lucas tries to best to heighten her spirits, even lying to her on occasion to maintain a sense of optimism. At one point, Lucas stares at her leg for a minute before telling her it’s “still red,” which, we assume, is untrue. We have no trouble believing that Maria will die, and this family story will end just as tragically as it began. But every time we are about to lost hope, a glimmer of sunlight breaks through the clouds and reminds us that Maria is still alive – suffering – but alive.
Tom Holland is to be commended for his performance as well. He exuded rays of adulthood better than a lot of adult actors. His character’s composure in the face of danger and futility is impressive, especially considering his age and the fact that his father and brothers were missing (and probably dead). Very young actors have a tendency to be irritating and whiny at times, but Holland was neither. I found him convincing and highly fitted to the role.
To understand The Impossible, you have to place yourself in the shoes of the victims. There isn’t really anything nice to watch, and the only visuals that may leave your mouth hanging open are rooted in pandemonium. But this is a very human story and if you’re a human, you can relate to it. There hasn’t been a major opening for the film; I was lucky enough to catch it at a small, independent theater on my Christmas trip home to Philadelphia. If you have to drive a little bit to find a showing – trust me – it will be gas money well spent.
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