The tragic, untimely death of Paul Walker is a pall that hangs drearily over “Hours,” a film in which he not only starred but also served as executive producer. Now that it has found a theatrical release, limited though it may be, one wonders if audiences will be capable of responding to it on a level apart from Walker’s involvement, if it can be judged fairly rather than as a tribute to his memory. This year’s “Filly Brown,” which featured a posthumous performance by Jenni Rivera, begged the same question, as did the 2012 remake of “Sparkle,” featuring Whitney Houston, and Terry Gilliam’s phantasmagorical “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” featuring Heath Ledger in a role that couldn’t have been completed without the casting of three other actors. The ideal, of course, would be to see past the loss and focus on the plot, the characters, and the themes.
It’s a good film. At times, it’s rather inspired in the way it masks emotional complexity with structural simplicity. However, it isn’t without its flaws, most of which are evident in the final act, at which point it introduces contrivances that are overly melodramatic and push the limits of plausibility. And although Walker’s death shouldn’t factor into the equation, the fact that his character is faced with two personal losses – one definite, the other a very real possibility – makes the film unsettling in a way it isn’t supposed to be. By that, I mean the burden of his life being cut short weighed too heavily on a subject was intended to be a mere depiction. It doesn’t help that the story is set in New Orleans during the destruction and immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a disaster that resulted not only in over 1,000 deaths but also in a significant rise in crime.
One of the film’s strengths is that the massive scope of the damage done by Hurricane Katrina retains its power even after being reduced to a handful of characters in an enclosed area. It tells the story of man named Nolan (Walker), whose wife, Abigail (Genesis Rodriguez), dies after giving birth to their daughter five weeks prematurely. This happens just as Katrina makes landfall. The situation isn’t ideal to begin with; the hospital is understaffed and overpopulated with patients. As the hours progress and the destruction mounts with the breaking of the levees, the hospital is forced to evacuate. Nolan, however, has no choice but to remain, as his newborn child, who hasn’t yet learned how to breath on her own, depends on a neonatal ventilator, which cannot be moved. The situation worsens when flooding causes a failure of the backup generators, killing all power to the hospital.
As if all this weren’t enough, his daughter depends on bags of saline, the supply of which is rapidly dwindling. She’s also on a ventilator with a battery that cannot hold a charge for more than a couple of minutes. Improvising, Nolan drags a portable generator into his hospital room and hooks the generator to the batter via jumper cables. Because of the low charge, he must repeatedly crank the generator. At first, it’s every three minutes. It eventually reduces to two minutes and fifty seconds, then to two minutes, and ultimately to a mere minute and a half. The constant feeding of power to the battery necessitates that Nolan constantly time himself as he leaves the room in search of supplies and methods of escape. It also requires him to stay awake, which becomes quite difficult as the hours without power stretch to thirty-plus. This forces him to tap into the hospital’s supply of adrenaline. This would likely kill him in real life, but never mind.
Although Nolan is fiercely protective of his daughter and does everything he can to keep her alive, one gets the sense that he’s motivated less by her and more by the loss of his wife, a reality he cannot accept. Consider the fact that he decides to name her after her mother, which comes on the heels of telling a nurse a personal anecdote. Also consider two key scenes, both so subtle on the surface yet brewing with raw emotion underneath. In one, Nolan looks at his daughter for the very first time through the plastic case containing her, a tube sticking out of her mouth; the only thing he can say to her in that moment is, “I don’t know you.” In the other, Nolan bends over the shrouded body of his wife, one of many bodies lining a hallway on gurneys and on the floor; “I don’t want that baby,” he whispers to her covered face tearfully, “I want you back.” The more he tries to save his daughter’s life, the more free he feels to talk to her, telling her stories about how he and her mother met. Specific moments in their former lives are presented as flashback sequences.
I’m forced to question the thinking behind two scenes in the latter half of the film, which feel oddly disconnected in tone and intention from the rest of the film. In one, Nolan has a brief conversation with a physical manifestation of his dead wife. Whether this was supposed to be an actual supernatural encounter or a projection of Nolan’s imagination is open for debate, but either way, it comes off as cloying and artificial. The other is the introduction of a rescue dog, which enters Nolan’s life through sheer happenstance and serves merely as a way to drive the plot along to its conclusion. I initially questioned a final encounter with two thugs looking to loot the hospital of prescriptions, but it eventually became clear that the purpose was to show how, in some instances, survival depends not on human decency but on who is the fittest. Not that “Hours” is a Darwinian fable. It is, first and foremost, a character study about a man faced with death – his wife’s, the possibility of his daughter’s, and the very real possibility of his own.