When J.A. Bayona’s The Impossible was released in 2012, I was wary. It received some well-deserved flack for casting Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, and three perfectly aryan children to play the Spanish family on which the film—a grueling physical and psychological journey following the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami—was based. In the same vein, the film was critiqued for its representation of Thai people, or lack thereof, as helpful and compliant with the caucasian vacationers to Thailand who remain the film’s central focus. All viable points of critique, and worthy of discussion.
When I went to the theater, however, I had far too visceral and intense an experience to write The Impossible off entirely. It is always difficult to say that one “enjoys” a film based on such a horrific event, especially one as little removed temporally as the 2004 tsunami; but I did come away shaken and relieved, with a deep respect for the very real power of nature and the resilience of people impacted by its force.
Remarkable performances, disturbingly real visual effects and, especially, makeup, and a compelling central relationship make The Impossible a good movie. Staying informed about its critical flaws, and understanding that the total destruction on display has important political and social relevance, make it a movie worth exploring.
While the casting on The Impossible is reprehensible in one sense, it is also the smartest way to get more people to see the film. It’s a difficult trade-off with all Hollywood cinema, though it should be noted that Bayona is a Spanish director, the film was largely funded through Spain, and the real-life subject of the film, María Belón, received a story credit on the finished product.
It is interesting to consider that Belón and her family were on set for the film’s production, and that Naomi Watts especially credits her with a great deal of her phenomenal performance. Worth mentioning as well is the casting of tsunami survivors in extra roles, no doubt an intense and triggering experience, but perhaps also a very meaningful one.
What I mean to suggest is that the artists surrounding this production were not unaware of the way they were incorporating British/Australian actors to play Spaniards, or the overall lack of Thai representation on screen. That may, in some ways, make it all the more frustrating that these issues are not directly addressed. However, I think it also means that there was a focus to the story at hand when any number of stories could be told. It is always worth exploring multiple view points and experiences, and featuring a Thai family or a foreign language component of the film would be fascinating and make it all the more real.
But that’s Hollywood. At some point you give a filmmaker the benefit of the doubt, or you don’t. With work this well directed, acted, and designed, I choose to.*
Though I would have liked to see a more diverse central cast, Watts and McGregor are at their best here. As husband-wife pair Henry and Maria, there is an emotional vulnerability to their work from the get-go, before the tsunami strikes, that makes them easy to root for and difficult to see hurt. Watts was deservedly nominated for a lead actress Oscar for the part, and she is the true emotional core of this very large, expansive film.
Henry and Maria take their three sons—in ascending order, Simon (Oaklee Pendergast), Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and Lucas (Tom Holland, playing the hell out of what is essentially the male lead)—on a Christmas vacation to Thailand in an effort to get Henry to focus on family over work. After a couple of peaceful, romantic nights at their beachside resort, the tsunami hits.
The film that follows tracks Maria and Lucas, who she quickly finds in the fast moving water, as they search for Henry, Thomas, and Simon. There is some split focus, but we spend most of our time with Maria—whose horrible injuries are seen in gruesome, all-too-real close-up—and Lucas who, at 13, must grow up incredibly quickly under pressure. The real tension and difficulty of this pair’s relationship is the highlight of the film for me. Lucas is too young to handle it all on his own, and his mom, as much as she hates it, becomes dead weight very quickly.
In my favorite scene, they are walking toward a large tree to find safety from a possible second wave when Maria stops and turns to her son. He immediately looks at the ground and says, “Mom,” in an almost embarrassed tone. She, too, looks down and realizes that an injury to her chest has left one of her breasts exposed, a detail that seems too real to be false. She covers herself up and has Lucas take the lead, but the minute or so of silence between them suggests a great deal about the immediate upheaval of their relationship.
Bayona does a masterful job of rendering tension and dread from the palpable emotional duress on display. His previous film, The Orphanage, is one of the better horror films I’ve seen in recent years, and this movie’s much more realistic terror comes from losing the ones we love. Some people I’ve talked with say that they feel the film is emotionally manipulative, and it is a tear-jerker to be sure. But it is rooted in such honesty, with a hell of a true story behind it, that I couldn’t help but feel a great deal, manipulation or not.
The physical creation of the film goes a long way toward generating that response, and it can’t be described as manipulative in the least. The tsunami itself is rendered with such realistic force and in-the-moment danger that I found it difficult to watch. It is one of the more intense few minutes of runtime I’ve seen in a film, with a deep-seeded dread filtered through both practical and special visual effects. And the makeup design captures vividly the extent of what the human body can endure.
The initial wave happens to be the scene I’ve chosen to show: It’s midday by the pool. Maria is reading, Lucas is playing around with a ball in the pool, and Henry is in the shallow end with Simon and Thomas. Suddenly, waves come crashing over the cabanas, ripping up palm trees and sending other visitors flying. Maria, crouching by a glass enclosure, yells for her husband and children but watches as they are swept away—she follows a similar fate, crashing through the glass before being tossed around like a rag doll underwater and emerging hundreds of yards from where she began, grasping a palm tree’s trunk.
Both the filmmaking prowess and emotional impact I’ve touted are vividly realized in this brief clip, and I hope it encourages you to check out The Impossible if you haven’t already.
Note: The blood and gore and doom and gloom I’ve mentioned in this write-up are not nearly as present in this clip. It is edited in such a way that the more difficult passages of the scene are passed over. Still, it is intense and viewer discretion is advised.
*As always, I am up for any and all conversations about any and all films—if you disagree with my statement, or have a different point of view, leave a comment and let’s chat! The more voices talking about an issue the better.