Directed by: Eric Heisserer
Premise: Set in New Orleans during the landfall of Hurricane Katrina, a new father (Paul Walker) loses his wife during childbirth and his infant daughter survives on a respirator. Because his daughter cannot be moved, he stays with her in the hospital after it is evacuated but when the building loses power he must recharge the respirator battery every three minutes with a hand-cranked generator.
What Works: Hours is a smart and effective thriller. The story sets up a compelling situation and generally presents it intelligently. The film begins with the main character, played by Paul Walker, being widowed when his wife dies in childbirth and his daughter is sustained by a respirator. When the power goes out, Walker’s character must recharge the respirator with a hand-cranked generator but the life of the battery gradually declines and the father must find ways to sustain himself and his baby. The filmmakers of Hours smartly structure the story, alternately giving Walker’s character a challenge, such as finding food and diapers or attempting to call for help, and then dramatizing the character’s relationship with his deceased wife in flashback. This structure helps break up the action and it allows for character development. Survival movies like Hours run the risk of becoming repetitive and flat since the action is limited to a narrow space and the stories don’t lend themselves to characterization. Successful examples of this kind of film, like Open Water and Buried, break up the repetition with unusual camera angles and other cinematic techniques. The filmmakers of Hours are able to use the flashbacks to give the survival of the baby additional dramatic weight; if the life of a newborn weren’t pressing enough, the story makes it clear that the baby is all the father has left of his relationship with his wife and that gives the task of keeping the baby alive some additional heft. As the movie goes on, Walker’s character is stranded in the hospital for days and the filmmakers give him intelligent things to do as he tries to make use of the supplies on hand. The filmmakers also do an effective job dramatizing the physical and psychological difficulty of the character’s struggle and the makeup work and Walker’s performance convey the father’s exhaustion and increasing desperation. In that respect, Hours is a fitting microcosm of the Hurricane Katrina experience as a man is stranded and alone, fighting for his survival and the survival of his family with no help from the outside.
What Doesn’t: Although the premise of Hours is compelling, the execution has serious flaws. Part of the problem is political. In many respects Hurricane Katrina was an event that was defined by race. The devastation of New Orleans was primarily felt by citizens of color and so to portray the event though a white protagonist is problematic. This could be a minor issue but the filmmakers keep making it worse. First, a group of mostly black survivors scare off a rescue helicopter by firing gunshots at it and later Walker’s character has to fend off thuggish looters played by minority actors. The filmmakers of Hours, unwittingly or not, reinforce many of the ugliest narratives that emerged out of the coverage of Katrina. Aside from the racial problems of this film, there are some filmmaking issues. The infant is a mechanical puppet and this fact is plainly obvious in several shots. Paul’s Walker’s performance is also a mixed effort. Parts of this film include some of his best work but Walker is also sometimes off-key, especially in the early scenes, due in part to awkward dialogue. The premise of the film also gets a little strained. The story reuses the looting scenario and the idea that a major hospital would be completely empty, even in the case of a natural disaster, is somewhat incredulous.
Bottom Line: Hours is a mixed effort. It is flawed in some critical ways but the movie succeeds as a thriller and the filmmakers tell a compelling story.
Episode: #472 (January 5, 2014)