HOURS-- 4 STARS
Too often when an actor or actress passes away unexpectedly at a young age, we are left with the feeling of what could have been. Because of their death, we are not going to see them advance and age gracefully as a star. We are not going to see them mature and become better with age as a performer. Instead, we are saddled with the feelings of the unrealized potential that the deceased actor or actress leaves behind. They become mountains with unclimbed heights. We saw that with Heath Ledger's towering Oscar-winning portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight in 2008 and just witnessed a redefining romantic performance from tough guy James Gandolfini in this fall's Enough Said.
For the recently-deceased Paul Walker, who's remembered mostly as an action star and teen heartthrob, that feeling of unrealized potential completely peaks with his new independent film Hours, which has been making the rounds on Video On Demand before an upcoming theatrical release. Hours is the directorial debut from screenwriter Nick Heisserer (Final Destination 5, A Nightmare on a Elm Street). It's a small picture distributed by a production house shingle within Lionsgate Films and was produced on a tiny $4 million budget. Walker himself backed it as an executive producer. It premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March and finally hits theaters on December 13th.
Set in 2005 during the events of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Walker stars as Nolan Hayes, a married man to a pregnant wife named Abigail, played by Genesis Rodriguez of The Last Stand, Identity Thief, and Casa de Mi Padre. As the storm begins to strike the city, Abigail goes into emergency labor five weeks before her due date. She gives birth to a premature daughter that requires NICU attention and an incubator. Worse of all, unfortunate complications from the delivery were irrecoverable and Abigail dies in labor. This leaves Nolan grieving and alone as a new single father.
With the hurricane getting worse, evacuations begin, but the baby's incubator requires constant electricity and can't be moved without substantial help. The doctor predicts that the baby should be breathing on her own within 48 hours. Nolan refuses to leave his daughter's side and chooses to ride out the storm rather than evacuate. Once the power goes out, the hospital's generators kick in ensuring secondary life support. Before the hospital is emptied, a benevolent nurse promises to bring back supplies, but that aid is soon cut off once the city levee system fails during the hurricane. The ensuing and catastrophic city flooding overwhelms the basement and most of the first floor of the hospital, taking out the backup generators. On low-charged internal battery power only, Nolan is able to find a crank-powered generator to maintain the incubator, but those efforts only buy him three minutes of power at a time.
These circumstances in Hours push the character of Nolan and Walker himself to their mental and physical limits. The camera rarely leaves its star. For much of the film, Paul Walker is the only actor onscreen, giving the picture a survival film feel akin to Castaway, Buried, or the recent All Is Lost. He capitalizes each scene of anguishing drama and deadline-driven suspense with pure dedication, complete with grit and tears. I'm not just saying this because he died. Paul Walker is that unexpectedly good and wholly different from the usual movie star we see in the Fast and Furious series.
First-time director Nick Heisserer takes a smart and simple premise and builds up solid tension. He keeps the ominous setting incredibly tight, and even claustrophobic, for how limited and almost helpless Nolan is to seek out supplies to keep himself awake and his baby alive. Heisserer shoots Hours with minimal musical score and an outstanding variety of cinematographic creativity for a movie with this small of a budget. Hours is a surprisingly compelling thriller with palpable drama for such a small independent film and is arguably as good as the more highly touted All is Lost. It does have an element or two that will take some suspension of disbelief, but, overall, the movie's believable tone really works.
Shedding most of his action star attraction and playing a dedicated father and husband, Hours easily stands out as the best Paul Walker has ever been as an actor instead of just a movie star. With his unfortunate and untimely death, it will be a shame that we will never get to see him capitalize from this passion project and personal success. Hours is a film and performance to be proud of. It's nothing award-worthy, but a very solid effort that resonates.
Though it's more of a thriller, Hours reminds me of when Matt Damon showed a new side to his acting a few years ago by playing a father role for the first time in We Bought a Zoo. This little film could have been the beginning of a similar turning point for Walker to be taken more seriously as a maturing actor. Much like the sympathetic role of James Gandolfini in Enough Said, if this goes down as one of Walker's last screen appearances, we will pause at what might have been.
LESSON #1: THE RESOURCEFULNESS NECESSARY IN A NATURAL DISASTER-- Due to their size and duration, there is no complete way to run away from a hurricane. Folks who live in those areas of the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic coast know that all too well. Nolan has limited access and resources available to him at the abandoned hospital and does his best to pace and make those materials and opportunities last with no clear timetable for a rescue. Resourcefulness is a completely necessary skill for this scenario.
LESSON #2: THE DESPERATENESS OF AN EXTENDED SURVIVAL SITUATION-- Being stranded during Hurricane Katrina without power and water was hard enough. The isolation and uncertainty is nerve-wracking, but Hours adds the physical exhaustion of Nolan's need to power the incubator generator for hours on end in intervals of three minutes or less. Even the strongest man would be spent after one day, but to carry on for a second day and more, without sleep and steady nourishment, brings new mental challenges to match the physical ones for our main character. At plenty of moments, desperate feelings creep in.
LESSON #3: A GOOD FATHER PUTS HIS CHILDREN OVER HIMSELF-- As fictionally created as this premise is to play out as a movie, this is a near indomitable test for a father. The man just lost his wife and is now the only thing keeping a new baby alive. Combined with the natural disaster and surrounding havoc, this trial of survival could break any man and make him question why. It goes to show that good fathers, no matter how experienced, will find the resolves and responsibility to put their children before themselves. Good fathers will die trying in fight for survival if it means their children can make it.