Many films about survival have merged natural landscapes with the themes of man versus nature–or in this case, woman versus nature–where characters find themselves under brutal and very hazardous weather conditions and scenarios; we have had characters in survivalist crisis in the ocean with Cast Away, Life of Pi, and All is Lost, and in the desert with 127 Hours and Gerry, and with wintry landscapes like The Grey and The Revenant, and, of course, we have had the jungle with Apocalypto and Naked Prey to name a few. It’s been mostly a male-dominated genre, so surely it was only a matter of time before someone started crafting a survivalist film where the protagonist is female. And so, we have Infinite Storm, which features Naomi Watts in a very commanding and physical role.
Watts has always been a skillful actress who has delivered very strong physical performances in such films as Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake, and we have seen her in survivalist mode before in her role as a doctor attempting to survive a deadly tsunami with her husband in The Impossible. The film, directed by Polish director Magorzata Szumowski and co-directed by her fellow cinematographer Michał Englert, is undeniably harrowing, resonant, and visually impressive with its landmark cinematography, but the film will certainly divide critics and audiences with its uneven dramatic shifts that fails to attain dramatic momentum. It’s one-part impressive survivalist film, one-part marital drama, where the second half feels dry and dramatically inert.
In Watt’s most psychical performance of her career, and perhaps her most emotionally charged performance since Mulholland Drive, Infinite Storm is a visceral film, where we feel the struggles of a woman lost in the wintry cold and we feel her struggles. As mentioned above, the film is very intense and harrowing to endure, but the film also has a dramatic ending that doesn’t quite earn the catharsis that the material is capable of.
Based on the true-life story of Pam Bales, a search and rescue volunteer who in 2010 traveled to the top of Mount Washington under harsh weather conditions, where she ended up rescuing a fellow hiker as she was on her hike. At the beginning of the film, in the very early morning, as Pam drinks coffee and puts on layers of clothing in the basement of a local convenience store, The store’s owner, Parker (Denis O’Hare), warns her that a storm is brewing, but Pam reminds him that she is determined to hike that day due to some important date that holds some essence in Pam’s past.
As Pam hikes up the steep mountain, the weather continues to escalate into harsher winds, snowfall, and conditions, and she falls down a hole that is covered in snow. Luckily, her spiked snowshoes allow her to climb up the tunnel. She ends up encountering a man (Billy Howie) who is wearing gym clothes and very little clothing. She notices he’s frostbitten and barely conscious. Pam refers to him as “John” as she attempts to rescue him and bring him back to the mainland. Many challenges arise, and “John” endures a lot of harsh brutality from the weather, steep hills, and frozen water. Their journey becomes quite life-threatening for them both, and it’s the moments of them together where it feels the harshest.
Filmed in Poland to sell it as taking place on the East Coast, Szumowski does a skillful job of helming a survivalist thriller where we vividly feel the brutal winds and frigid temperatures, and we feel her struggles as she attempts to rescue John–who obviously doesn’t want to be rescued and who traveled up the mountain mostly as a suicide mission. With a very abstract finale, we begin to realize who John is, and how he represents Pam’s past, which involves a tragedy with her lost children.
As nerve-racking as the journey is, it’s quite surprising how much Szumowska attempts to pull off here. Some will be perplexed, others might find the ending moving, but Infinite Storm is a type of film that would have worked better had it stayed just a survivalist film. The film’s screenplay comes off very slight in the full details of who John is, and who Pam really is other than a grieving mother with a few quick-cut flashbacks and some lightly sketched character drama.
Despite some flaws, the real pleasure here is Watt’s performance. With some vulnerable moments, that include Watts in a tub after her journey, along with her mountain climbing, she delivers a very commanding performance to a character that attempts to reflect back on the devastation of her life, and on the mistakes, she made as she hangs onto survival for herself and John. If only the script had dived a little deeper into her pathos, the film would have been a stronger triumph of hope, grief, and survival.