Naomi Watts is remarkable in Infinite Storm. There was no better choice for the role of Pam Bales, the real-life search-and-rescue nurse whose true story is told in the film. The actress has an uncanny ability to credibly go to uncomfortable places onscreen. I remember really noticing her in 2003's 21 Grams, a movie in which her character is told in one scene that her husband and daughters have been killed in an accident. Watts falls apart on camera. It's not just acting; she has a full-on emotional collapse. That skill comes in handy for this new picture, which is a tense survival drama.
It's a beautiful day when Pam wakes up. She gathers her hiking gear, stops for some hot chocolate, and heads out to the base of Mt. Washington for what's indicated to be an annual climb. Partway up, a brutal storm hits, limiting visibility and dropping the temperature considerably. Pam is about to turn around when she notices a set of footprints. The prints are not made by hiking boots, but by sneakers. That's when she spots a young man, poorly equipped for the climb, sitting half-unconscious in the snow. Since he's not initially very responsive, she dubs him “John” and proceeds to warm him up. John (Billy Howle) eventually comes around a bit, although oddly resists Pam's attempts to drag him back down the mountain. Freezing temperatures will seal their doom if they don't get going, so she has to essentially force this recalcitrant, dazed individual to move, now.
Director Malgorzata Szumowska (The Other Lamb) does a stellar job in making the mountain danger look and feel real for the viewer. Whether Pam is falling into a crevasse or trying to physically support a lumbering man through deep snow, Infinite Storm has a palpable sense of peril. This is one of those pictures where you can't help imagining yourself right there with the characters. You think about how miserable you'd be. You think about the panic that would set in. You imagine how you would react to the knowledge that you might not survive. In that regard, the movie proves to be a harrowing experience.
On top of that, you've got Naomi Watts doing her thing, and doing it beautifully. The way she conveys Pam's suffering from the elements is powerful, as is her portrayal of this woman's hell-or-high-water attitude. In many circumstances, it would be easy to wonder why Pam bothers trying to save John at her own peril, given his general apathy toward her efforts. Watts makes it crystal clear that, for the character, abandoning someone simply isn't an option. This marks another first-class performance from the star.
There is one very odd thing about Infinite Storm that limits its effectiveness a tiny bit. The movie gets Pam up that mountain within the first few minutes, before we really learn anything about her as a person. The rescue also ends a lot sooner than you'd expect – shortly after the one-hour mark, as a matter of fact. At that point, we are finally given Pam's backstory, in addition to crucial information about John. The result is that, for quite a long time, we're not sure why we're supposed to care about these people, despite the intensity of their ordeal. We're watching two strangers in a life-or-death situation. Gripping, yes, if not something we're particularly invested in on an emotional level.
Withholding information about John until the last half-hour makes sense. The real Pam Bales didn't learn his story until later on, so that's true to reality. Keeping Pam's history from us, however, is a mistake. If we knew at the beginning what we know by the end, it would add dimension and depth to her refusal to give up on John. The way it is, she's mostly a mystery to us during the incident, despite Watts' committed work. Her personal arc needed to be bumped up to the start for maximum impact.
Beyond that issue, Infinite Storm is still a nail-biting tale of two people fighting the elements. The technical proficiency makes you feel like you're braving those elements too, and magnetic work from Naomi Watts guarantees the stakes register.
out of four
Infinite Storm is rated R for some language and brief nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 38 minutes.