The Bottom Line
Mixed-bag nail-biter is well plotted but weakly executed.
South By Southwest, Narrative Spotlight
Paul Walker, Genesis Rodriguez, Yohance Myles, Kerry Cahill
AUSTIN — A grueling Katrina-set survival tale hobbled by a highly unconvincing setup, Eric Heisserer‘s is front-loaded with weaknesses but eventually shapes up into a capable nail-biter. The presence of Paul Walker in the lead may draw attention to this otherwise no-name production, but the action hero isn’t up to the movie’s dramatic needs, and gets little help from his director.
Walker plays Nolan, an expectant father whose wife Abigail (Genesis Rodriguez) suffers complications five weeks before her due date. Rolling her into the hospital just as the storm’s seriousness becomes apparent, he quickly learns that his wife has died on the operating table, leaving behind a daughter that, while healthy, will require a ventilator for at least 48 hours or so to survive.
Almost everything about this introduction rings false, from the words the doctor uses (saying Abigail "bled out," as if he were a cop discussing a perp in a shootout) to the order and Walker’s embodiment of Nolan’s shocked responses. His first reaction is disbelief, of course, but he doesn’t even ask to see his wife’s body until after he’s been shuttled off to see his baby; when he does find her body, Nolan seemingly has no impulse to pull back the sheet and see her face.
Since the ventilation machine is too bulky to move, Nolan is stuck behind when the hospital is evacuated. He’s alone on the floor by the time he learns, in the dark, that the machine’s battery is failing; he finds a crank recharger, but the defective battery can only accept two or three minutes’ worth of power at a time.
Tethered to the crank-generator, he must break any effort at survival or escape — hunting for replacement IV bags, attempting to fix the generator, racing to the roof to shout at helicopters — into two-minute chunks. As the script moves away from specific emotions to rely on the primal need to protect a child under these artificial constraints, finds firmer ground.
Fearing ticking-clock monotony, Heisserer breaks things up with an off-key but brief bit of comic relief (listen to this jaunty jazz while Daddy changes his first diaper) and throws Nolan into episodes echoing the worst behavior reported during Katrina’s aftermath. However desperate people were during those dark days, it’s hard to buy a camo-wearing thug stealing a handful of snack food from a man who can’t leave his endangered baby.
More effective tonal relief comes from flashbacks to Abigail and Nolan’s meet-cute, courtship and marriage. Though sentimental, the stories give the man something to say as he fills twelve, twenty, 38 hours at his child’s side — maintaining the movie’s storytelling pulse while Nolan struggles to keep the infant breathing.