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The Impossible (2012)

Drama Rated PG-13

Be forewarned if you go into a movie directed by Juan Antonio Bayona: he knows how to work over an audience.

The Orphanage, his debut, is a horror film that still visits me on random, sleepless nights, and The Impossible, his follow-up, is no less wrenching. In fact, in that it’s set during recent actual events and is based on a true story, the movie is in some ways even more harrowing.

The Impossible centers on a young British family vacationing in Thailand when the 2004 tsunami pummeled the coast. It’s a story told in such masterstrokes of staging and suspense – and anchored by such agonizing performances – that I frequently found myself wishing I could escape the picture’s clutches.

Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts play Henry and Maria, parents of three boys: Lucas, Thomas and Simon. Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez spend some time, but not much, establishing the family’s dynamics (on the plane to Thailand, in a conversation of ominous irony, the couple debates whether or not they remembered to turn on their home security system). It isn’t really until after the storm hits that we get to know who they are and how they relate to each other. The movie smartly lets the storm reveal their true selves.

The Impossible is always aware of how this traumatic experience would be filtered through this particular family.

The moments leading up to the first towering wave showcase a filmmaker working at the level of Spielberg in his Jawsian prime. The family is playing in the hotel pool when the winds start to pick up, and the way Bayona uses the small ball they’re tossing around to foreshadow what’s to come verges on the diabolical. There’s also a touch, in which a sudden sharp breeze blows a piece of paper onto a pane of glass through which Watts is looking, that rivals the trembling-cup-of-water sequence in Jurassic Park.

Not that The Impossible is mere precision and merciless craft. In the aftermath of the storm, when Maria and the oldest boy, Lucas (Tom Holland), are separated from Henry and the two younger ones, the picture becomes an emotional storm, as well. The filmmakers turn the screws here too – one way is to focus solely on Maria and Lucas for an extended chunk of the film, leaving us wondering about the fate of the others – yet there is such attention to realistic immediacy that I never once felt manipulated.

The Impossible is always aware of how this traumatic experience would be filtered through this particular family. Trudging in a daze through the post-storm muck, Lucas repeatedly averts his eyes from Maria’s torn shirt, which exposes both her wounds and a bare breast. A touch like that says so much not only about their dire situation, but about this moment in time in the relationship between mother and son.

Watts is a marvel – she gives Maria a ferocity that only increases as her hope and health start to fade. Holland matches her beat for beat as a boy instantaneously forced into becoming a man. Lucas’ progression from fearful kid to heroic adult, all under the determined tutelage of Maria, is authentically inspiring. The Impossible earns every tear – of both sorrow and relief – that it gets.

Before I make the movie sound too goopy and sentimental, though, I should note that Bayona hasn’t really left the horror genre too far behind. The aforementioned wounds are given their full due; as the movie goes on, Maria begins to resemble nothing less than a zombie. There’s also a moment in a hospital in which what appears at first glance to be a corpse suddenly lurches up and begins to vomit black bile all over the floor. It was then that I realized why Bayona’s film was so effectively unsettling. The Impossible isn’t a hopeful drama with flickers of horror. It’s a horror film with flickers of hope.