The Impossible

A giant wave, and then another giant wave of emotion.

Naomi Watts and Tom Holland in The Impossible.

Naomi Watts and Tom Holland in The Impossible

Photo by Jose Haro/Summit Entertainment, LLC.

Elsewhere in Slate: Dan Kois and Laura Helmuth debate the ethics of The Impossible.

The trailer for The Impossible makes it clear that the entire family featured in this drama about the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami survives. If you’re the kind of person who is enraged by spoilers in trailers (or reviews), my apologies, but seriously that’s the only thing that makes this excellent, harrowing movie bearable: knowing all along that no matter what horrible things happen to this family in the wasteland of post-tsunami Thailand, they—unlike as many as 300,000 other people—will all eventually find each other. Had I not known that in advance, I would have fled the theater in despair 10 minutes in, when the enormous wall of water sweeps over the beach at the resort where Maria and Henry Bennett (Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor) are staying with their three sons.

There’s an argument to be made, of course, that to even film such a movie is an insult to those 300,000 souls lost to the waves on Dec. 26, 2004, none of whom were as lucky as the Belons, the actual Spanish family whose experiences inspired director Juan Antonio Bayona’s film. Did this movie need to be made? Probably not. Does that mean it isn’t completely astonishing? Nope.

Start with the wave itself, which crashes into the family and everyone else at the resort with a humbling finality. I can’t be the only one who had previously entertained the thought that those who survived the disaster had done so because they were better swimmers, stronger, more clever than those who perished. Sure, I knew that luck had played a role, but Bayona’s terrifying wave makes it clear that no one ought to have survived that day, and those who did were simply more fortunate—nothing else. When the wave hits, the screen goes black and silent for agonizing seconds; slowly light and sound filter back in, and we’re launched into a tumult, the world transformed into speed and sea, as the bloodied, battered survivors are carried inland for what seems like miles, trees and power lines and cars tossed around with them.

In the aftermath of the wave, the family is split: Eldest son Lucas (the excellent young actor Tom Holland) must secure care for his badly wounded mother, while Henry and his two younger sons search the ruins for their family. The film’s screenplay, by Sergio Sánchez, does not intercut briskly between these two stories; instead, the film lets each play out in long sequences, making us feel the predicaments of Lucas and Henry acutely.

The teenage Lucas, who in early scenes seems a bit callous toward his family and little brothers, rises to the occasion, helping other survivors in the hospital locate their loved ones. Henry, meanwhile, sends his children off to the mountains with a group of adults—“You’re gonna behave yourselves, right?” he asks, just like every parent ever—while he continues to search nearby towns. He holds it together until a friendly stranger lends him a phone to call his parents; the instant he hears a familiar voice, Henry breaks down, in an elementally sad scene that reminded me how wonderfully unrestrained an actor McGregor can be.

For her part, Watts’s character spends much of the film overwhelmed by shock or pain or medication, but the actress’ presence is so forceful that her character registers as a real person throughout, despite looking, most of the time, like a corpse. Her relationship with Lucas is particularly touching; as they take care of each other, the fading mother and blossoming son tell each other hard truths or bald-faced lies as the situation requires.

As the family nears the reunion that must, we know, be coming, Bayona—whose first feature was the nerve-jangling The Orphanagecreates something quite exceptional: a horror film, inverted. Salvation is stalking these characters from just off-screen, as they narrowly miss finding each other in this stairwell, that waiting room. The frustration and tension had me weeping; imagine the waterworks once they actually found each other. (Many kinds of viewers will find this film moving, but I can’t imagine any parent not unraveling completely as a result of its assault.)

Late in the film, we revisit the wave itself in a dream, and we see Maria floating toward the surface as, below her, bodies hover in the depths, lost forever. Is this movie disrespectful to their memory? Is it exploitative of the nonwhite victims of the tragedy, who outnumbered the Ewans and Naomis among the dead? I’m inclined to think that this clear-eyed film, excruciatingly well-made, exploits all the victims, at least a little bit. (Watching the scenes at the resort before the wave hits, one can’t help but think, Well, all these characters will be dead in five minutes.) But that’s the nature of the true-life disaster story: It draws a sharp line between those who survived and those who did not. All I can ask of such a story is that it doesn’t blame those who are blameless and that it makes me ask myself if I would act with honor should, God forbid, such a thing happen to me.

The movie is not, as the trailer suggests, a tale of the triumph of the human spirit. It’s about luck. It’s about sadness. But it’s also about the way that victims of the disaster—of any disaster—band together, performing kindnesses large and small, willingly or grudgingly, to help others survive or find their families or channel their grief. The clear villain in The Impossible is the implacable sea, seen from high above in the movie’s opening and closing shots. But there’s one other bad guy. It’s the one asshole tourist who won’t let Henry use his phone.