An undistinguished survivalist drama featuring Naomi Watts caught in a blizzard, Infinite Storm is a well-meaning but tepid retread of countless better films. The real-life story of New Hampshire search and rescue worker Pam Blanes, who in 2010 encountered a pair of extreme challenges during a six-mile hike up Mount Washington—a life-threatening storm of the century and a suicidal, ill-equipped hiker determined to die on its peak—it is sincere and well shot exercise in familiarity offering gorgeous locales but few surprises and little substance.
With a simple screenplay by Josh Rollins from Ty Gagne’s Reader’s Digest article High Places: Footprints in the Snow Lead to an Emotional Rescue and co-directed by Malgorzata Szumowska and Michael Englert (also the film’s cinematographer), it is a picture as on-the-nose literal as the title of its source book. It is also one with curiously blunted impact given its perilous premise, though Watts tries her damndest to layer an underwritten character with strength and humanity.
When we first meet Pam Blanes, who lives in solitude in a tiny, dark house aside a river, she drags herself out of bed on a chilly October morning and didactically prepares her hiking gear as a radio weather forecast warns of a cold day in store—a massive understatement. Blanes stops by the local general store for some light banter with the shopkeeper (Dennis O’Hare) before heading up to the parking lot and trail head at Mount Washington. There are hints at an underlying emotional condition when she remarks that the beauty of communing with nature is “cheaper than therapy.”
So far, so good—the stunning mountain cinematography (lensed in the Solvenian Alps) and aerial drone shots effectively exploit the natural setting, massive in scale and a foreboding vortex of deceptive grandeur, perhaps because we know what’s coming next as Blanes intrepidly forges into danger. We know little about Blanes (is she a lone hiker herself?) but it turns out that she is making a routine trek over a six-mile trail as a volunteer rescue resource. Arriving at the trailhead she notices a single car in the parking lot. Who is up on the mountain and are they aware of the impending weather conditions?
This first part of the film, as Pam makes her way vertical and star Watts pushes up steep inclines, trekking above the tree lines and across magnificent mountain ridges, is where the film excels, including a harrowing extended sequence where Blanes must extricate herself from a deep, icy hole. Watts, an actress whose signature is often balancing large emotions and intense physicality, thrusts herself into the herculean demands of the mountain, and role. As the wind quickly accelerates and the storm is suddenly upon her, the picture is structured with time indicators on the bottom right of the screen (6:40am, 8:32am, 10:47am, etc.), a distracting and hackneyed device intended to suggest a race-against-the-clock flight to safety.
The story turns on Blanes’ discovery of high-elevation tennis shoe tracks in the deep snow, leading to a near catatonic, ill-equipped and likely suicidal young man (Billy Howle) whom she nicknames “John,” and the bulk of the film charts her efforts to get them both down the mountain safely. Predictably, this involves frostbitten toes, accidental slips and slides down steep declines, falls into rivers, a lot of yelling and other routine predicaments. Complicating Blanes’ struggle, John is also emotionally unbalanced and may not want to be saved, making the journey back far more dangerous. Throughout, the film offers little spatial understanding of the mountain; Blanes seems to go up so quickly yet going down is a huge challenge. Perhaps there was far greater distance on the trail but the film is not explicit as to its distance or terrain.
Just over an hour into the picture they safely return to the parking lot, but John quickly speeds off without a thank you or goodbye. The final half-hour offers an eventual explanation for his actions as well as for Blanes’ past trauma, which we guessed far earlier. A scene of reconciliation offers the film’s one good line, which speaks to pushing through grief as “the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty,” and suggesting kindred souls brought together by circumstance, bonded in grief and buffeted by the kindness of strangers to get one through the dark places. Okay, fine.
The principal problem in Infinite Storm is that we are given so little detail about its characters that they register less as dimensional people and more as mere character descriptions: Grieving Souls Unite to Survive and Share Life Lessons. The screenplay would have benefitted from some additional context on Bales’ life and perspectives. We know precisely two things about her—that she becomes an unlikely hero and that she is grieving a tragedy.
Watts, the tremendously sympathetic actress critically undervalued in American cinema, does all of the film’s heavy lifting (physically and emotionally), giving a performance that eclipses everything else onscreen. Appearing weather-beaten, aged and unfettered, she plunges into the considerable demands of the role with zero vanity and an emotional exposure that is her hallmark in pictures like 21 Grams and The Impossible, both of which brought her Oscar nominations. In fact, Infinite Storm merely calls on her to repeat her work in both of those films—both as a mother struggling with the painful loss of her children and a woman thrust into an overwhelming natural disaster (as she did in The Impossible’s Thailand tsunami), left to fight her way out of both predicaments.
On Watts, the prolific and always compelling star whose career was launched two decades ago by David Lynch in Mulholland Drive, for anyone who hasn’t seen her daring psychological portrait of a successful adult attorney with buried emotional issues over a childhood adoption trauma in Rodrigo Garcia’s 2009 Mother and Child, do so post haste. Ditto her morally complex contemporary mother in the 2019 indie drama Luce, a provocative role and performance. A uniquely skilled actress equally adept in small independent films like Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young and Peter Jackson’s huge commercial behemoth King Kong, she is underused in Infinite Storm and any substance the film achieves is squarely a result of her considerable efforts to fill in its blanks.
While the real life story may be remarkable, as a movie An Infinite Storm is a human interest story that fails to generate much interest in its humans because it hasn’t given them enough to do. Extreme survival stories (The Impossible, 127 Hours, Everest) can be hard to watch given the visceral nature of survival, but this one is hard to watch because it fails to generate much investment in its characters. Consequently, it leaves us as as cold, and stranded, as its characters in a waste of our time and Watts’ talents.
1 1/2 stars