The recent, tragic death of “Fast and Furious” franchise anchor Paul Walker has given us all time to take stock of the actor’s dramatic strengths and weaknesses. He was, after all, a handsome fellow whose life was over way too fast and furiously, and he was capable of great range when he wanted to flex certain muscles that weren’t just in his chest (you can read our rundown of his five best performances here). It’s a shame, then, that “Hours,” a nifty little independent thriller that Walker starred in, is coming out after his death. It is easily one of the most assured, nuanced performances the star had given; it is also one of his last.
“Hours” is set in 2005, on the eve of Hurricane Katrina. Walker, playing a man simply identified as Nolan, is rushing his wife Abigail (Genesis Rodriguez) to the hospital. She’s not due to have the couple’s first baby for another five weeks, but her contractions have started already—it’s now or never. Of course, while Abigail is giving birth, the storm intensifies. There’s a great moment where Nolan is in the waiting room, his head down, when the wind from the storm breaks every window. Nolan doesn’t flinch.
Eventually a doctor tells Nolan that his wife has died during delivery, which, even given the circumstances (and the state of the American health care system), seems somewhat unrealistic. If the movie was set in Victorian London, perhaps, this would have been easier to take. But this is New Orleans before the storm. Still: it raises the stakes considerably. The scene where Walker refuses to believe that she is dead is one of the most powerful in the movie, bringing to mind a similar sequence in Steven Soderbergh‘s “Contagion.” Walker gets across the sensation that this man just can’t understand how his wife, so young and vivacious, could be dead. (There’s an equally chilling scene where he goes to visit the body, only to notice it being improperly stored on the floor.)
Of course, this is first and foremost a thriller, one of those locked-room types with a single location, which tests the inventiveness of the filmmakers and star (something along the lines of “Buried,” say, or “The Purge“), so emotion isn’t its chief concern. Very quickly the stakes are set: the hospital is being evacuated but the cumbersome equipment that is being used to keep Nolan’s premature young daughter alive can’t be transported. A helpful doctor who says that he isn’t leaving ends up having to tend to an emergency outside the hospital, and is unable to get back in.
Nolan makes the easy decision: he’s going to stay with his daughter, come hell or swampy high water. From then on out, the movie works as a series of meticulously measured suspense set pieces—there’s the fact that the generator fails, leaving Nolan to hand crank the breathing apparatus every few minutes or so; there are looters who are looking to steal the hospital’s vast array of pharmaceutical pleasures; and a helicopter almost lands, but is shooed away by nearby snipers (supposedly based on a real life incident). Everything is infinitely more complicated—changing a diaper for a newborn dad is problematic, but it’s made even more so by the fact that he’s got to do it while inside the baby’s pressurized chamber, making sure he doesn’t screw anything up.
What makes “Hours” so compelling, of course, is Walker’s performance. He’s always acting, which is quite something, given how the movie could so easily slip into a catatonic state. Nolan uses the time alone with his newborn daughter to tell her the story of his relationship with her mother—how they met, when they got engaged (a ridiculously cute story right out of a romantic comedy), and how they came to making her. It might be a little far fetched, but he’s alone in a spooky, waterlogged hospital. If he’s not talking to his daughter, then he’s searching the hospital for various supplies (the liquid in his daughter’s IV drip, something to keep himself awake) or talking to a rescue dog that has trapped in the hospital, who he nicknames Sherlock.
As written and directed by Eric Heisserer, a heavily hyped genre screenwriter whose actual resume is severely lacking (he wrote the fifth “Final Destination” and co-wrote both the awful “Nightmare on Elm Street” remake and the awful “The Thing” remake), it feels like a movie with something to prove. It’s bottled atmosphere is both rich and occasionally suffocating, but Heisserer is able to keep the thrills coming while maintaining an emotional tether to the character and the situation. While occasionally the movie veers into the realm of implausible melodrama, it’s a well-modulated affair and knows exactly when to pull itself back from the brink.
And, of course, that sensation of the movie trying to prove itself is shared by Walker’s performance, which feels full of I’m a serious actor intent. After years spent in the “Fast and Furious” franchise, which undoubtedly paid for many lovely vacations and a sprawling California estate but offered little in the way of actual difficulty or range, it must have felt nice to put himself in what is essentially a one-man show. Thankfully the performance is never bogged down by a seriousness of intent; he’s once again playing a hard-nosed, woozily romantic cop who is put in an extreme circumstance. He’s just got more to say this time.
As one of the last completed roles by the actor, too, it feels nice to be able to luxuriate in the actor’s presence. In another set of circumstances, “Hours” could have proved to other filmmakers what the actor was capable of, and he could have found a second wind to his career starring in tightly claustrophobic thrillers like this (imagine Liam Neeson‘s career of late, but with less revenge). Sadly, we’ll never know if this was in the cards or not. At the very least it’s nice knowing that he was comfortable performing somewhere outside of a franchise defined as much by the automobiles as the actors. [B]