INFINITE STORM: A Whimper Instead Of A Gale

People with a taste for survival stories will find no shortage of them on the big screen. Whether you like people sweating out arduous desert hikes, floating in the maddeningly dehydrating ocean, getting themselves out of jams of their own making, or (my personal favorite) trying to outrun the creep of frostbite, you can find innumerable made up or plucked from reality tales of human going through hell to stay alive.

Past setting and obstacles, you can break them up further into two buckets: the emotional metaphor and the procedural. The former relies on some wound from the past that adds further weight to the person(s) struggles, which is usually hinted at until the emotional release of its climax. The latter takes you through every excruciating step required for survival, where the devil really is in the details. It’s the difference between Sandra Bullock’s grief-infused journey in Gravity and Matt Damon’s potato gardening in The Martian. There’s overlap, but those are distinctly different movies.

Infinite Storm is an emotional outrunning frostbite survival story, one based on the true story of Pam Bales, who during a solo hike encountered an ill-prepared man high up a New Hampshire mountain. The story would percolate in the area and eventually disseminate through national media coverage, grabbing attention less for its thrills than its strangeness. The basic story doesn’t add up, unless if you know you’ll know. Not the facts but the underlying emotion, which makes the story so crystal clear that the film’s refusal to honestly engage with it becomes its own deadly game.

Hard But Not Cinematic

INFINITE STORM: A Whimper Instead Of A Gale
source: Bleecker Street

The film begins with Pam waking early for the day, stumbling through a morning routine, and meeting a friend for a loaded conversation about her planned hike. Allusions to poor weather and the date being a painful one loom, but she sets off anyway, at first soothed by the uneventfulness of the early parts of the trail. But as she climbs higher the weather turns nasty, and right when she might have turned back she spots sneaker tracks in the snow. Following them, she finds a half-frozen man in thin clothes and her training in search and rescue kicks in. To leave him up here would mean his death. Taking too long to get down the mountain in this weather would mean both of their deaths.

Up to this point, the film had straddled the two survival subgenres. Director Malgorzata Szumowska and screenwriter Joshua Rollins meticulously lay out the beginning of the hike, with long shots of gear and displays of their usage establishing a base level of understanding for the terrain and its rigors. But that conversation with Pam’s friend looms large, and once she has this mysterious man (she nicknames him John) to take care of, their bonding takes over.

In a way, this shift in focus is sorely needed. While there’s little doubt they were in a dangerous situation, the hike itself doesn’t have a ton of cinematic obstacles. There’s snow and wind and loose stones, but the struggle is essentially to keep putting one foot in front of the other, which quickly becomes repetitive.

INFINITE STORM: A Whimper Instead Of A Gale
source: Bleecker Street

Not helping matters is the obscuring of the physical elements, which never whips or chills as you watch. There’s a lot of tight camerawork that feels squished by budgetary restrictions, and too often impressionistic flourishes pull you out of the brutal realities the pair face. What you’re left with is a lot of trudging, trudging that looks unpleasant but never feels truly life-threatening, which is a huge miss for a survival story.

Disconnected Emotion

Luckily, Pam’s story didn’t take off because the mechanisms of their survival were particularly harrowing (this is no Touching the Void). Instead, everything about the man she finds on the mountain leads to one very tragic conclusion, which the film connects to Pam’s own past. But instead of making their unlikely bond clear early on the film plays coy with the revelation, treating the facts as the end all be all of the story when they actually open up untold (especially by this film) layers.

It’s almost comical the way the film teases out the man’s presence on the mountain when one look at his appearance raises suspicion and the revelation of a pet’s name gives up the game. Perhaps we’re supposed to know early, but if so the film does shockingly little with it, leaving any exploration of its implications to a maudlin and tacked-on ending. The people who heard this story and made it into a legend seem to have a clear idea of why it’s important. The film, though, does very little to engage with this much more difficult aspect of survival.

INFINITE STORM: A Whimper Instead Of A Gale
source: Bleecker Street

So without solid themes or adventure, who can possibly carry this thing? The job falls to Naomi Watts as Pam, who has carved out an odd place for herself within thrillers. This, The Wolf Hour, and The Desperate Hour have all positioned her as an isolated woman who must go through the wringer, and all came out in the last handful of years. Watch any of them and you’ll see why people trust her to carry a movie; she can communicate much in very little time, and she throws herself into the physical challenges of each role. 

Despite the flaws around her, Watts is almost able to make Infinite Storm work, digging into the moments when Pam becomes exasperated to make her feel like less a thematic placeholder and more like a person. But too often her work is covered, literally, by heavy jackets and snow goggles, reducing her ability to lift the film as it stumbles around her. She tries, she really does, but there’s no saving something this lifeless.

Conclusion: Infinite Storm

A harrowing true story is rendered inert by the light touch on its most interesting aspects. A solid performance by Watts adds some energy, but it’s ultimately too cold and distant to spring to life.

What are your favorite survival movies? Do you think Infinite Storm lives up to their standard? Let us know in the comments below!

Infinite Storm is currently available in theaters.

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