Thursday, December 12, 2013

Writer/director Eric Heisserer gets a career-defining performance from Paul Walker in HOURS

For obvious reasons, this review is suddenly a lot more complicated than it would have been two weeks ago.

Some time ago, I was lucky enough to see an early screening of HOURS, Eric Heisserer's directing debut, an emotional drama about a young father desperately trying to keep his prematurely-born baby alive in an evacuated hospital during Hurricane Katrina. Heisserer adapted the script from his own short story and it's the perfect sort of material for a director to establish himself with. There are stakes, tension, a contained location, but still great production value. It also is largely a one-man show starring that young father, who for long stretches of the film, is only able to act against either a dog, or a prop baby in an incubator.

That young father is played by Paul Walker.

I haven't seen the film since before Walker's tragic death a few weeks ago. My opinions were set in stone long before he even began production on the seventh FAST & FURIOUS sequel. But most of the audience won't have that luxury. When an actor dies, their last few films are often reviewed kindly. The death brings a baggage that encourages the audience to feel the performer might have been cut down at the height of their potential. That even actors whose work was once maligned managed to offer hints of what they were capable of, if only fate hadn't denied them the opportunity to truly fulfill that promise.

Because of that, I know that it might be tempting to cast a skeptical eye to reviews of Walker's performance in HOURS. "Of course, he's going to be praised," you might think. "What heartless monster would bash a dead man mere weeks after he was buried?" You're probably right. But that doesn't mean these reviews are wrong.

What I can tell you is that I walked into that screening many months ago largely wondering one thing, "If Paul Walker tanks it, I'm going to need to find something I can tell Eric I liked about the movie." See, Eric Heisserer's been a good friend of the blog. I don't know him terribly well. We've certainly interacted a lot on Twitter and traded some emails, but I think we've only met face-to-face perhaps three times. Still, he's been nothing but terrific to me when we have interacted and so I was really hoping HOURS was something I could praise honestly.

But it starred Paul Walker.

Oy. The fratty guy from Into the Blue, I thought. I haven't even seen those car movies he's in, but I don't think they're exactly leaning on his acting. I'm sure he's got his range but this intense drama feels like it's going to be WAY outside of his wheelhouse.

Less than two hours later I dined on crow.

The set-up is efficient. Hurricane Katrina is about to hit New Orleans as Nolan (Paul Walker)'s wife Abigail (Genesis Rodriguez) goes into premature labor and dies. While Nolan struggles to process this (there's a moment where he quite literally seems not to understand what the doctor means when he says there's nothing they could do for Abigail) the storm takes a turn for the worse, forcing an evacuation of the hospital.

There's just one problem - the newborn needs to stay in an ventilator that can't be evacuated with everyone else. The baby has to remain inside for 48 hours. Nolan is told to stay with her while everyone else leaves the hospital, promised that someone will return for them. And thus begins the one-man show portion of the film.

There's a wonderful moment where Nolan looks down at his helpless child and Walker doesn't play the expected note where this new father melts at the sight of his baby girl. Far from it. He tells the baby "I don't know you" and then says that he'd rather have his wife back than have the child. His wife was the one more excited about having a child, and Nolan is clearly angry not just over her loss, but the manner of her loss.

From here, the script turns into a master class of raising the stakes. Power fails and the ventilator only has a backup battery that can hold only a three minute charge. This means that every three minutes, Nolan needs to crank the generator in order to keep his baby alive. If he tries to get supplies, he needs to be back in three minutes. If he seeks out food, he needs to be back in three minutes. If he attempts to call for help, he must be back in three minutes. In one intense sequence, Nolan races to the roof to try to let a helicopter know there's still someone inside the hospital. Tell me, do you think it's easy to run all the way upstairs, get a chopper's attention and then make it back downstairs in time to recrank the generator.

Oh, and did I mention that three-minute time limit actually gets shorter as time pases? Nolan gets more and more sleep-deprived and hungry, but actually has to remain extra alert to keep cranking the generator constantly.

I confess, there are moments where the film does seem to cheat the three-minute limit. One moment in particular seems to stretch the disbelief that Nolan could not only get into a situation within the three-minutes, but that he would allow himself to not even attempt to return to the child until the time is up. Once his watch alarm goes off, Nolan encounters another delay that leaves the impression the baby was left off the ventilator for a perilously long time. But then, I'm not a doctor so perhaps it's entirely reasonable that the child could be revived within that window.

In any event, Heisserer knows how to generate tension far more effectively than pretty much any of the directors who've interpreted his prior scripts for the screen. However, his greatest accomplishment might be getting a performance from Walker that few would have though him capable of.  In fact, by the end of the film, Walker no longer seems an unlikely pick for this role so much as his film personae makes him the perfect person to headline this story.

When a sensitive guy cries, as emotional as it is, it's also expected.  For some reason it's far more affecting when the stoic or the unflappable types break down.  The cockiness that usually defines Walker's characters is present in Nolan, but this entire ordeal is an exercise in breaking down that armor.  These are the most important 48 hours in Nolan's life and little by little, Nolan endures increasing mental and physical exhaustion.  To Walker's credit, he's not scared to go to some very vulnerable places on screen to really make us feel that along with him.

I walked out of that screening both impressed by the film and humbled that I had been arrogant enough to presume the lead actor wasn't up to the task of carrying the emotional drama in the story.  I may have also been a bit smug, knowing that I had a head start on the rest of the filmgoing public in declaring that Paul Walker was an actor whom everyone had underestimated.  I definitely felt I'd witnessed something that would later be pointed to as a turning point in that man's career.

So much potential, snuffed out right on the verge of being realized.  One lesson to take from the story of HOURS is to never take our loved ones for granted. Nolan never expected to lose his wife on the day she bore their daughter.  I'm sure it goes without saying the posthumous release of HOURS itself carries a similar message.

Hours is opening in limited release this weekend and is available on a number of VOD platforms. For a list of theatres carrying the film, click the picture below:

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for composing this. Great review and reflection.