‘The Impossible’: Swept away

December 21, 2012

You don’t have to be a parent to appreciate the horror, the challenge and the determination involved in the story of “The Impossible” – or to be plunged into the mindset of “What would I have done?”

But if you are, you’ll have an extra appreciation for what the characters in this film go through – and the ferocity of the effort they make.

Based on a true story, this film like Juan Antonio Bayona may be the year’s most harrowing film. You’re holding your breath almost from the start and gripped with tension until the end.

Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor play Maria and Henry, parents of three young children – the oldest, Lucas (Tom Holland), looks about 10 or 11 – who travel to a resort in Thailand to spend the Christmas holidays. But it happens to be 2004 – and, on the day after Christmas, the coast is destroyed by the worst tsunami to hit in the country’s history.

Bayona initially stays with Maria and Lucas, who spot each other as they are being swept along by the rush of water and debris. It’s touch-and-go, but they manage to keep their heads above water and find their way into a tree.

Once the waters subside, they have to focus on their situation. Maria has been badly injured, though she’s powering through to make sure Lucas gets to safety. But they have no idea what’s happened to Henry and the other two boys.

Eventually, they catch a ride to a hospital on higher ground, which has been swamped with the injured. Maria is taken to a bed, while Lucas keeps watch – but her condition is grave, after being tossed in the water against sunken debris, as though stuck in a spin cycle with a bushel of rocks.

Bayona then cuts to Henry and the two boys, who have survived – but in another part of the countryside. Henry is determined to track down Maria and Lucas, though he is convinced they’re dead. But to find them may require him to leave the younger boys behind to move more quickly.

There is a relentless quality to the film, a sense of being pulled along by forces of nature over which you not only have no control but which you’re helpless to anticipate. Bayona makes a point of avoiding mythologizing these characters or imbuing them with heroic qualities, other than the strength to keep moving forward. They have been exceptionally lucky to survive – now what do they do with that luck?

The tsunami itself will have you holding your breath. The power of the water – its unstoppable, faceless surges that toss humans, trees, cars like matchsticks – boggles the mind, even if you’ve been through something like the recent Hurricane Sandy. That anyone survived is surprising – and the way they make it through is inspiring.

Watts brings a cool-headed grit to this character, a doctor who recognizes instantly how badly hurt she is but who refuses to succumb to her injuries until she’s ensured the safety of her child. McGregor has that same kind of strength: a brave front for his kids that masks the soul-searing pain and what he’s afraid he’ll find about the rest of his family.

“The Impossible” is grim and compelling but, ultimately, inspiring – and never less than thrilling. It’s one of those movies that will haunt you, for what it says about the human refusal to quit and the parental imperative to protect their offspring, even as the cost of the parent’s life.

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