Has a movie ever been improved by the insistence that it’s “based on a true story”? More often than not, these pronouncements feel as if they’re doing less to contextualize the actual films that follow than they are to compensate for them — that they’re insisting upon a degree of importance that the rest of their running times don’t justify and/or pleading for a suspension of disbelief that the rest of their running times don’t earn.
The dangers hardly stop there: Malgorzata Szumowska’s “Infinite Storm” is an unusual reminder that such an approach also runs the risk of provoking the exact opposite effect. Remarkable as the true story behind this emotionally detached survival drama might be, the non-fiction label it staples to itself during the opening credits steels viewers for an urgency that never develops, and limits them to a strictly literal interpretation of a rescue attempt that resonated with people because of its rather non-literal definition of what rescuing someone might entail.
Here are the facts: At the height of a blistering snowstorm on October 17, 2010, a volunteer member of the Pemigewasset Valley Search and Rescue team named Pam Bales stumbled upon a suicidal young man sitting in beach clothes at the edge of a cliff near the summit of Mount Washington, and — in the face of her own doubts and demons — did everything she possibly could to get him down to safety. But Szumowska’s film, in its own vague yet belabored way, makes clear from the start that Pam is also in need of saving.
Another of the rugged survivors that Naomi Watts has embodied with delicate grit in the face of so many different horrors (tidal waves, home invaders, dashed Hollywood dreams, etc.), Pam has been living alone in the wilderness of New Hampshire since her two young daughters were killed by a carbon monoxide leak, and her grief is sketched by the absence of any other characteristics. Why does she decide to trudge up Mount Washington (played with threatening grandeur by the Slovenian Alps) in the face of dangerous weather? “It’s cheaper than therapy, and the mountains always listen and never talk back.” Josh Rollins’ script will tease out the specifics of Pam’s tragedy in small pieces, but everything we’ll know about her is made clear in a single line.
And yet, Szumowska (along with her co-director and cinematographer, Michał Englert) shoots that fateful day with a clinical eye that gradually allows procedure to obscure pathos. From the start, “Infinite Storm” is more focused on timestamps than it is on Pam’s frame of mind, though Szumowska renders her heroine’s semi-reckless sense of abandon in fine detail. There’s only one other car in the parking lot where embarks on the trail, and the hike is so risky that Pam is compelled to wedge a map of her path under her windshield wipers.
And yet, as the movie wordlessly trudges its way up the mountain, it seems to share Pam’s reluctance for self-reflection. Does she disregard the coming storm because she’s an experienced hiker who knows these mountains like the back of her hand, or is the possibility that she might never come down part of her decision to climb in the first place? When she hears cries for help on the wind, does she wonder if they might only be in her mind? Watts’ stoically determined performance invites such open-ended questions — and what little emotional heat this frostbitten movie is able to generate depends on her character not knowing the answers to them — but “Infinite Storm” keeps pushing Pam toward her destiny as if it were afraid she might be late.
Despite the refreshingly experiential flavor of Szumowska’s approach, her film is handcuffed by the facts of its true story, and Pam remains at such a pronounced emotional remove that it sometimes feels as if she’s only hiking up that mountain because the facts of the matter demand that she must. Flashbacks are kept to a minimum, but ditching them entirely might have done more to emphasize the crucible of this one fateful climb. As it stands, “Infinite Storm” settles for the worst of both worlds, as the harrowing suspense of the situation is dulled by Pam’s lingering ambivalence towards surviving it.
That becomes twice as true once she comes across “John” (Billy Howle), who’s half-dead and fully delirious by the time she finds him. Pam assigns her non-verbal rescue target a name in the hopes of sparking any kind of response, but he’s even less emotionally forthcoming than she is, and just as conflicted about being saved. While John eventually shines a few rays of light on his situation, and the overlap between these two characters is legible in broad strokes, watching Pam drag this lifeless husk of a man down the side of a mountain offers all the insight and excitement of watching someone corral an unruly toddler through a hectic airport.
Szumowska doesn’t shy away from the grim slapstick of the whole situation (“What a fucking asshole,” Pam sighs after the guy she’s trying to rescue flings himself off yet another cliff), but there’s not a lot to it once the rescue mission reaches a lower altitude, and whatever transcendence these people are meant to offer each other amid the chaos of the universe — a chaos that naturalist John Muir referred to as “an infinite storm of beauty” — is increasingly supplanted by the tedium of watching them tumble back down to Earth. The remarkable truth of the rescue precludes any chance for poetry, and the postscript that “Infinite Storm” invents for this story is, in its own way, far less affecting than what happened in real life. Szumowska’s film swears that Pam and John saved each other, but it’s too awed by the fact of what happened to explore what that might actually mean.
Bleecker Street will release “Infinite Storm” in theaters on Friday, March 25.