By: Steph Cannon
When faced with adversity, humans often have the innate ability to pull from strength deep within, in order to beat the odds stacked against them. Tales of harrowing survival in seemingly impossible situations have been reported throughout history, ranging from incredible military defeats to missing hikers finding their way back to civilization. While the larger-scale accomplishments certainly have their merit, there is something especially inspiring and heartwarming about an individual’s will to live. INFINITE STORM, starring Naomi Watts, and directed by Malgorzata Szumowska, examines this with a taut, gripping portrayal of one woman’s refusal to give up.
Based on a true story, Watts plays experienced Search and Rescue climber Pam Bales, who sets out on an arduous hike hours before a major storm is set to hit the region. Bales served as one of the writers on the film, which is a testament to the accuracy of the events that unfold. Watts’ depiction of Bales feels authentic and genuine, right from the start, and it doesn’t take long for us to get the sense that this is a hardy, capable woman. Because of this, even though there are clear warnings about the weather from a newscast as she readies for her excursion, it doesn’t feel like a foolish decision on her part. She’s aware of the possibilities, but seems more than qualified and prepared to handle what’s ahead of her.
The film doesn’t waste time in the first act beating the audience over the head with character exposition. Instead, we’re treated to getting to know who Pam truly is throughout the course of the film, when the harrowing details of her experience unfold.
Once Pam sets out, it becomes clear that the impending storm is indeed looming ahead, just as predicted. Although this portion is virtually devoid of any dialogue, it’s hardly noticeable, thanks in part to the cinematography and progression of difficulty in her solitary trek. There’s an undeniable fascination in watching her scale rough terrain and dodge wind, snow, and hail. Watts obviously put her all into this role, and it’s easy to forget that we’re watching a movie and not actual footage of this incident.
The elements quickly begin to overtake Pam, and just when she realizes the true peril of the situation, she spots a figure sitting in the snow up ahead. She discovers a catatonic, barely conscious young man (played by Billy Howle) who is severely underdressed for the conditions, and swiftly goes to work aiding him. There’s no time for niceties or proprietary introductions, and even if there were, the man is in no condition to hold any kind of conversation.
Pam speaks to him as any true first responder would, explaining everything she’s doing as it happens. She tells him she’s going to call him “John,” while she puts him into warmer clothes from her pack, and gets him to his feet. Not only is John barely able to stand, he’s also combative and unmanageable, stumbling around and fighting off Pam as she tries in earnest to help him.
From this point on, it’s a constant game of push and pull, as Pam relentlessly encourages, carries, drags, and at times, strong arms John into making it down the mountain. Her mission has suddenly changed from one exclusively centered on her own survival, to one that ensures she does not give up on John, despite his numerous attempts to surrender to the elements. At times, it feels as though she’s a harried mom chasing after an unruly toddler, as John makes every attempt to force their already grueling predicament to be even more troublesome. He does have moments of lucidity, however, and in those times, the two have opportunities to bond and connect.
In both cases, it is very easy to care about these characters and their plight. The pacing moves along with a steady clip that, combined with the endless turmoil Pam and John go through, leaves the viewer in a state of heart-pounding breathlessness. Beneath the surface of it all lies a deeper message of loss, grief, and finding your sense of purpose when all hope is lost.
There’s a quote that appears in the film at one point that simply states, “it only takes one person to change someone’s life.” No truer words could be spoken to fully encapsulate what INFINITE STORM is communicating. We should all be so lucky if we can say we’ve had the same happen to us.
Bleecker Street will release INFINITE STORM in theaters March 25th, 2022.