You probably don’t know the name Pam Bales, but this New Hampshire nurse, mother and search-and-rescue mountain guide is a hero by any definition.
Naomi Watts, no stranger to roles requiring great physical skill and authenticity, plays Bales at perhaps the most challenging moment of her life and career as a simple day hiking up the Mount Washington peak in the White Mountains becomes bleak as the weather turns treacherous with early snowfall and blinding 80 mph winds and she discovers a lone man, clad in only shorts and a windbreaker, clearly in the throes of hypothermia and in immediate need of help.
This is the crux of Infinite Storm, an effective story of survival against the odds and of shared grief between two strangers. The bulk of the film, though, focuses on the physical challenges Bales encounters as she tries to lead this stranger, at times fiercely resistant to her efforts, down to safety at the bottom of the imposing New Hampshire mountain.
The screenplay, adapted from an article detailing the real-life rescue written by Joshua Rollins is a bare-bones, structured look at essentially a few hours in the life of Bales and this man whose name she does not even know so she just calls him John. It is humans vs. nature, and both — as we eventually learn — have more in common on this mountaintop than they might have imagined. Two-time Oscar nominee Watts, who is tackling a lot of intense and physically grinding roles of late (The Desperate Hour, Penguin Bloom), certainly is up to the task of playing Bales in not only the requirements of being believable as a woman who knows every inch of this mountain but also one who could face an emergency situation of life or death and jump into action with such humanity and concern for one person’s life.
What starts as an ordinary day and a regular hike up her beloved Mount Washington, as always with a backpack to deal with any situation, seems a bit ominous as the weather is darkening and an early snowfall is predicted. She brushes these concerns off and parks her car at the base of the mountain, where she encounters a pair of hikers leaving because it was getting too rough. Noticing just one other car in the parking lot, she asks if they saw anyone else up there, but they didn’t.
Setting out on her hike, the conditions slowly get unbearable, and as she is about to turn around, she spots the man (Billy Howle), who appears completely out of it. He is ill prepared for this weather, to be sure, and clearly on a path to dying if he is not helped.
She goes to work, saying that she is with search and rescue and will get him out of there. He doesn’t appear interested, and as she puts warmer clothes on him, he starts to resist as she gathers him out of his stupor to begin the trek down. And what a trek it is, hampered at many points by his own stubborn efforts to get her to leave him alone. She even wonders if he is high on drugs, not knowing why he is so resistant. It will all become clear only later, and it isn’t giving a lot away to say the story does not end with the “rescue” but only begins in some ways with the “search” of what actually bonds these two strangers. We are given only clues about Bales’ own life in brief flashbacks focusing on her with her two young daughters, but there is much more to learn by the time this film comes to its powerful conclusion.
Acclaimed Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska understandably was intrigued when sent Rollins’ script and smartly keeps the tale grounded and concentrated to the events of this one day, rather than trying to be a biopic of Bales. It is an enormously effective approach and pays off handsomely, with strong help from the superb cinematography of Michal Englert. Producers are Watts, Peter Sobiloff, Mike Sobiloff, Trudie Styler, Celine Rattray and Jenny Halper. Bleecker Street releases it Friday in theaters. Check out my video review with scenes from the film at the link above.
Do you plan to see Infinite Storm? Let us know what you think.
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