“Based on a true story.”
Those five words, or others that convey the same meaning, can have a strange effect on our expectations for a film. Suspension of disbelief isn’t necessary since the story, minus vague parts of it that may been changed for dramatic effect, actually happened. That idea seems to stick in the back of our minds as an audience, informing our constant judgements on the film’s qualities.
But what if a film doesn’t start with those oft-maligned words? Well, then that film should have to operate in some realm of believability wherein it establishes rules by which it then plays. Unfortunately, Hours feels like a ‘based on a true story’ film that gets bogged down by reality and Paul Walker‘s acting.
Walker plays Nolan, a supposed everyman, whose wife, Abigail, goes into labor hours before Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans. The labor is 5 weeks premature, and the baby is placed on a ventilator to help her breathe until her lungs can sustain themselves. But there were complications during the birth and Abigail passed away. Wrecked and left with nothing but his newborn, Nolan tries to make sense of things as the rain and wind start to batter the hospital. When the evacuation is called for, Nolan stays with his daughter who can’t survive outside the ventilation chamber. The doctors and nurses that promise to come back never do and the power goes out, leaving Nolan alone and his daughter’s life in the hands of an aging battery backup system. While Nolan does discover a hand-crank generator that can charge the battery, it can only a hold a charge for a few minutes at a time.
And then the movie proceeds to go pretty much where you know it’s going the whole time. While they do several flashbacks to establish the relationship between Nolan and his wife, the vast majority of the run-time is Walker and the baby. Unsurprisingly, the newborn doesn’t talk much leaving the film solely on Walker’s back. Sadly, he’s just not up to the task.
He does get some credit here though, mainly because you can see the effort in his face in every scene. This is a guy who’s busting his ass, trying his very hardest to carry this film, but his performance just doesn’t cut it. It’s certainly not because he was lazy or phoning it in; Walker is there in every scene doing everything he can, and the sudden presence of a dog does at least give Walker something to play off. But it’s just not enough.
Where the greatest actors can disappear into roles, Walker can not. He doesn’t come off as Nolan the everyman who lost his wife, he just comes off as Paul Walker. His reaction to the news that his wife has died seems painfully forced and his monologues to his daughter about her mother fall flat instead of drawing out emotion. He gets an ‘A for effort’ but it doesn’t make the movie any more enjoyable.
Without the ‘based on a true story’ line the sequences of Walker running off to scavenge, find food, and try to get rescued seem like a pretty big stretch given that he’s got to be back in his daughter’s room to crank that generator every 2-3 minutes. And while they make a point of him setting an alarm on his watch and racing around the hospital when it beeps, it just seems awfully implausible. It’s the type of thing you could forgive if you knew you could go home and Google this guy’s story, but as it is it stretches suspension of disbelief to the breaking point.
It’s not all bad though. This is a well shot, well edited film that looks and sounds good. It’s just not terribly interesting despite the subject matter. Some of the emotion does come through, though it’s unclear if that’s just latent emotions about Katrina and our collective failure to help or if the narrative is strong enough to pull our heartstrings itself. Either way, it’s just not a very good film.
The Upside: Walker’s effort is apparent; it’s pretty well shot and edited; some of the emotion comes through; credit for not killing the dog
The Downside: Walker just doesn’t give a strong enough performance to carry the movie that’s clearly resting on his shoulders
On the Side: Writer/Director Eric Heisserer also wrote the remakes of The Thing and A Nightmare on Elm Street as well as Final Destination 5