Joel and Ethan Coen definitely understood the impact upon an audience of telling them, as they subversively did with 1996’s Fargo, that what they were about to watch is “based on a true story.” The use of those words helped set and frame a certain expectation.
Infinite Storm, an entirely different type of movie than the Coens’ bleakly comedic crime drama, illustrates this fact quite well. A very well-crafted but persistently disorienting survival film starring Naomi Watts, this misframed effort does itself no favors by claiming its nonfiction bona fides so prominently to its promotion and opening credits, and then flogging them so repeatedly.
Directed by Małgorzata Szumowska (Never Gonna Snow Again), the movie tells the story of Pam Bales (Watts), a New Hampshire woman who sets out on a six-hour loop hike up and around the unpredictable summit of Mt. Washington. When forecasted bad weather arrives early, bringing snow and fierce winds, she decides to turn back.
Seeing sneaker prints in the fallen snow, however, Pam reverses course and encounters a stranded, unresponsive and hypothermic man she comes to call “John” (Billy Howle). Haunted by her own personal loss, Pam dips into her well-stocked supplies and attempts to lead him down the mountain. Along the way, John, clearly driven by despair, becomes a bit more communicative but remains largely uncooperative, thrusting upon viewers questions about life-saving assistance and reasonable risk.
Infinite Storm slots in some ways in Watts’s recent filmography alongside 2019’s The Wolf Hour and last year’s The Desperate Hour, each offering a portrait of an isolated single woman grappling with intense, mentally destabilizing circumstances. Watts also previously dabbled in disaster and survival in J.A. Bayona’s The Impossible, but this is a much more streamlined affair, funneled through her character’s point-of-view. Howle (On Chesil Beach) is little more than a goateed icicle for most of the film, though he does ably acquit himself in the one scene that most matters for his character.
It is on Watts’ shoulders, however, that Infinite Storm otherwise rests. Her talent at conveying swallowed pain and heavy regret outstrips the script’s more basic representations of the same. What sustains a viewer’s interest in Infinite Storm is Watts’ controlled performance, and the film’s direction.
There is a finely balanced sense of realism and lyricism in the work of Szumowska, whose movies have taken home two Silver Bear Grand Jury Prizes from the Berlin Film Festival. Working with cinematographer and frequent collaborator Michal Englert (who receives a co-director designation in the end credits), Szumowska crafts a highly experiential movie. Smart shot selection and camerawork are abetted by swirling sound design from Ben Baird, lending Infinite Storm the feeling of to-scale technical marvel, especially during the outdoor passages that comprise the bulk of its 98-minute running time. With one possible exception (a close-up of a New Hampshire “Live Free Or Die” license plate), it eschews any brawny clichés of survival and instead strikes an effective balance between capturing the howling, unconquerable brutality of nature and communicating the inner feelings of a woman attempting to navigate it.
Still, too much of Infinite Storm feels like the dramatic version of a meandering anecdote from a friend who can’t be interrupted. Adapted by Joshua Rollins from a 2010 newspaper article by Ty Gagne, the film is illustrative of the difference between a story merely well told and a story well conceived. It doesn’t necessarily spoil much to say that Infinite Storm eventually gets off the mountain, which is the point at which Rollins attempts to unpack and make sense of matters, after indulging plenty of straightforward rescue mode. But it feels like a fundamental misframing of the narrative, a too-late arrival of human connection.
Infinite Storm evidences Szumowska’s gifts as a director, but it also offers an important reminder about the inherent limitations of cinematic storytelling: Just because the truth is compelling, sometimes it’s still better to print the legend.