The Impossible is a story from the Indian Ocean tsunami that hit the coastlines of several Asian countries in 2004. As you may recall, it was a devastating event, one of the worst natural disasters in recorded history, with staggering death tolls climbing past a quarter of a million and a wake of incalculable destruction. Countless people lost everything, but The Impossible focuses wholly on the experiences of one family of tourists and is based on the first-person account of the real-life Maria Belón. Belón's family has been Anglicized here, their surname changed, their skin and hair washed out in shades of blonde to be headed up by picture-perfect proxies in the shape of Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor. We watch in horror as this everyday family unit travels to Thailand for the Christmas holiday only to be torn apart, physically ravaged, and left searching and suffering for their missing pieces. It's a harrowing journey, and one that flirts as dangerously with uplifting, maudlin melodrama as you might expect. What's impressive, though, is how thoroughly The Impossible commits to the depiction of struggle, and how the film blends genres we often assume are disparate to build something that is powerful in spite of its narrow focus. Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona previously directed The Orphanage, and it's no logical leap to say that The Impossible is just a horror movie of a different kind. It's a disaster-action-horror-family drama film that subjects the actors and the viewer to surprisingly extreme depictions of turmoil in the name, perhaps, of showing you just how bad things can be.
The actors walk and limp about for much of the film looking as though they were extras escaped from Hostel or Saw; bloodied, wounded, mottled with painted textures and sunburns that will make you flinch when you see them. As Maria, Naomi Watts delivers a fascinating, physically demanding performance. We are made privy to Maria's direct experience of the tsunami, we ride the waves with her, are plunged beneath the rising water, thrown against sharp metal detritus, into drifting trees, cars, and walls. The sequence is impressive in its intensity and truly frightening, and Watts makes us believe every second of it. As her eldest son Lucas, Tom Holland also delivers a convincing, strong performance as a child struggling to stay strong through we see in every glimpse that he is terrified, that he does not know what he will do from second to second. While the film has several really phenomenal visual moments, the acting is what makes The Impossible possible. Watts, Holland, and McGregor turn in brilliantly controlled performances with superficial material that walks a fine line between the repellent and the saccharine. They have gone in search of a way to make the true events have a biting edge that reads as emotionally rich instead of simply manipulative.I appreciated their efforts, and though the outcome is ultimately predictable, I was repeatedly surprised by the way the film subverted the action genre to create tension and suspense where there would otherwise only be waiting and sadness. Of course, the film is flawed in a way I found ethically confusing. As I mentioned already, The Impossible reads as a Hollywood whitewashing of a global catastrophe. While Belón's story is a gripping account, it seems strange to me to focus not only on a family who remains together, but also on a family who is capable of escape and who can leave the ravaged coast behind as mere memory. Yes, their story is amazing. They're tremendously lucky and, thankfully, driven as a unit. They are the sort of people who can, I suppose, teach us something about that old 'strength of the human spirit' chestnut. To its credit, too, I believe that what The Impossible ultimately offers is an insight into tragedy. We are shown what it's like to live through this, the chaos and heart ache breaking out while we're watching coverage from our couch, and we are left to imagine what it would be like to have that happen. But, The Impossible is too populated with tourists, a little too interested in one family's misfortune to show us the lives of the people left to deal with the fallout.