THE WASHINGTON POST – In October 2010, Pam Bales, an experienced New Hampshire hiker and volunteer with the Pemigewasset Valley Search and Rescue Team, embarked on a solo hike on Mount Washington, encountering not only a blizzard but a dazed and underdressed hiker, whom, over the course of several fraught hours, she led back down the mountain to safety.
Bales’s dramatic story has been told before – by Ty Gagne in the New Hampshire Union Leader, and by Bales herself, in an essay in Backpacker magazine – and it is now the basis of a surprisingly quiescent little film called Infinite Storm by Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska (The Other Lamb). The film’s inertness is unexpected, and a tad disappointing, considering that first-time screenwriter Joshua Rollins has unearthed some genuinely fascinating details about Bales’s backstory that were not in either published account of the rescue.
The film’s enervation is certainly not the fault of Storm’s star: As Pam, Naomi Watts more than holds our focus, in a two-hander to which her co-star (Billy Howle, playing the anonymous, uncommunicative hiker she dubs “John”) contributes very little. Watts is all physical and mental exertion as Pam struggles and strains against bad weather, falling through a hole in the ice, and a counterpart who is more antagonist than most accident victims.
For much of the film, Pam might as well be accompanying an especially recalcitrant sack of potatoes down the mountain, for all that Howle’s character – found sitting and almost comatose in shorts on a snowy peak – contributes to their interaction. At first he stumbles as if drugged, then inexplicably hurls himself off a ridge. Later, he collapses, sobbing incoherently.
When salvation is near, he allows himself to get washed away in a river, before eventually, reluctantly, complying with Pam’s entreaties to do what she said.
And then that part of the story, for all its seemingly built-in suspense and tension, is suddenly dispensed with quickly, despite being fleshed out with brief flashbacks to an earlier incident in Pam’s life. Those flashbacks help contextualise her enormous drive to save the life of a person who seems not to want to be saved, but they slow down the momentum.
The real story – and the real, albeit metaphorical – storm of Infinite Storm takes place not on Mount Washington, but in the aftermath, in an emotional encounter between Pam and John that never actually took place, but which is fictionalised by Rollins for dramatic effect.
This epilogue-like conversation – along with the prickly dynamic between these two hurting characters, both of whom, it is made clear, are carrying around their own private tempests – feel oddly static, even anticlimactic.
Despite the blizzard and all the hardships Pam and John faced on the 6,288-foot Mount Washington – home of the “world’s worst weather”, as Bales notes in her essay, and the site of more than 150 deaths in as many years – it turns out that Infinite Storm is, by design, neither much of a mountaineering movie nor a survival story.
Rather, it delivers a message, as if by snail mail, about something more interior and private.
That doesn’t have to make it a movie that is without drama. But that, perplexingly, is what Infinite Storm feels like: a harrowing, life-or-death story that has been drained of power to score melodramatic points that feel – however true – unearned.