The 2004 tsunami that devastated South Asia and the East Indies has surfaced occasionally on the big screen—remember Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter?—but The Impossible, the story of one family’s terrible, terrifying true experience, takes audiences into the multifaceted horror of that event.
Doting parents Maria (Naomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor) take their three young boys on a Christmas holiday to a picture-perfect coastal resort in Thailand. Henry is employed by a multinational in Japan, and is worried about his job; Maria is a doctor who gave up her practice to raise the kids. The day after Christmas, the tsunami hits, wiping out the hotel and smashing everything in its path. Henry and the younger boys, Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) and Thomas (Samuel Joslin), manage to hang on near the resort, while Maria and their older boy, Lucas (Tom Holland) are swept inland with the massive wave.
As presented, this is all utterly terrifying. The filmmakers’ approach, however, is more punishing than engaging. Most of the scenes are filmed in the shaky-cam, handheld style, showing the actors in one extreme close-up after another.
The approach is all the more puzzling as the director, J.A. Bayona, also made the stately, beautiful horror film The Orphanage. This 2007 thriller also put tormented parents and lost children front and center, but varied the emotional pitch.
That film also had a careful sense of geography, both of the manor house where the central action takes place and the surrounding, mysterious grounds. In The Impossible, Thailand begins as paradise and ends as a wasteland; by marrying the film’s point of view so claustrophobically to the characters, we’re as lost as they are—and that extended sense of disorientation is also not pleasurable.
That, however, seems to be the point the director wants to make; only in the final shot, which is from Watts’ point of view through an airplane window, do we finally get a sense of what happened to the place they visited. Bayona immerses the audience so deeply in the horrors of these characters, it’s pretty clear that he wants us, above all, to feel as bad as they do. (One can’t help but think, as Watts enacts yet another wounded-body horror, of the hell she went through in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games remake.) But what does the director want us to learn from their experience? That bad things happen to good people?
Maybe it’s just that: Cataclysmic suffering can descend upon successful Europeans, too. Bayona makes a point of showing that the reunited family are met by a Swiss insurance rep, and flown away in a private jet; this emphasizes that The Impossible is, in the end, a First World experience of a Third World horror story.