When artists sign on as producers of their films, it can feel like a statement of intent. Such is the case with the real-life drama “Infinite Storm,” starring Naomi Watts as a grieving woman on an unexpected rescue mission. The film has an attractive, simplified trajectory: the woman runs up and down a mountain, stopping to save a lost soul. With this role, Watts reminds us that she can hold the screen on her own and without saying a word tell you everything you need to know about a character – and still look fantastic.
Early on October 17, 2010, a New Hampshire woman named Pam Bales set out on a six-mile hike up Mount Washington, the tallest peak in the northeast. The temperature was expected to reach 20 degrees, with winds reaching 80 mph Bales, however, was a lifelong hiker and search and rescue volunteer. So she hid extra layers and snow goggles in her backpack before heading to an area she called an office and play area. “At 5,000 feet, about three miles away,” she later wrote in Backpacker magazine, “the wind began to pick up around me.”
Even for those who are into hiking (on flat ground in good weather, thank you) it looks like madness. The presence of a likeable performer like Watts, however, quells doubts even as it deepens the stakes. You’re already on Pam’s side when she wakes up at home in the early morning gloom. Alone, she wades through her secluded home, filled with thoughtful touches and quaintly parked by a river. It’s quiet inside, which makes you wonder about the smiling children in the framed photographs. Most of the time you settle into the calm and mood of the methodical rhythms of Pam preparing for what looks like a very serious hike.
The world appears and fills the silence more and more. Pam stops at a restaurant, where she exchanges pleasantries with a friend (Denis O’Hare) and fills in a few blanks. It’s a brief, seemingly superficial interlude: he tells her to be careful and she reminds him that it’s the anniversary of an unspoken event. The scene sows the field with questions (what does it commemorate and why?), but above all seems designed to appease anyone who might be bothered by all the calm and a lonely woman: she’s not crazy, the scene reassures you, she has at least one friend and even a reason to head alone into the forbidden desert.
Pam’s hike is the centerpiece of the movie, and it’s a doozy. Director Malgorzata Szumowska draws in the forbidding lay of the land with sweeping aerial shots of the snow-capped mountain range that have shrunk Pam to the size of a dot. Szumowska also cleverly uses distance to accentuate Pam’s physique, allowing you to see the character from head to toe, just like when Fred Astaire danced. You see Pam’s – and Watts’ – laborious effort with every step as clearly as the blasts of icy air she exhales. As her efforts intensified, she warmed up and removed her shirt, revealing her midriff and the constant tension in her muscular arms and shoulders.
Watts is an extremely expressive actress and, like Astaire, a full-body performer. The image of her frolicking over a cliff for the giant ape in “King Kong” was the best part of this movie, and her character’s thrilling emotional drive in “Mulholland Drive” remains vivid. Watts is particularly brilliant at articulating a character’s inner being; it brings out what’s behind it so clearly and convincingly that you can see every thought and emotion floating through existence. It serves her character beautifully here, even if Pam’s glasses might get in the way. I could watch an entire movie of Pam—really Watts—climbing that mountain solo.
This Iron Woman hike takes a turn when the weather permits, and Pam finds a man (Billy Howle) crouched in the snow and nearly frozen. She warms him up by undressing him (good to know!) then swears to get him to safety. The unfolding is agonizing, sometimes captivating, and is only slowed down by hazy, explanatory flashbacks to Pam’s past life. These weaken momentum; they are also useless. We don’t need to know anything about Pam’s past, because her story is already evident with every step and every smile, and in a translucent performance that confirms that watching Naomi Watts on this journey is destination enough. .
Rated R for adult language and suicidal ideation. Duration: 1h38. In theaters.