AUSTIN – Eric Heisserer has had a tough career to judge as a screenwriter. His produced credits so far are “Final Destination 5,” “A Nightmare On Elm Street,” and “The Thing,” and I would genuinely have a hard time finding much good to say about any of the three. I would have an equally hard time blaming much about the films on him, because I am keenly aware of just how insignificant a part of the machinery you are as a writer when you’re working on franchise films and high-stakes remakes for the studios. The key decisions on all three of those movies were made by people way above Heisserer’s pay grade.
Heisserer published a short story called “Hours” on a site called Popcorn Fiction, and if you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you may recognize that site’s name. I published two stories on the site as well, and I assume the same thing I liked about it is what drew Heisserer to it. The site is owned by Derek Haas, a working screenwriter, and while Popcorn Fiction is happy to publish a writer’s story, they don’t demand any ownership of the material, nor do they retain any rights over it if you choose to do something with it in another media. It’s a great place to showcase personal work that you might otherwise never get in front of an audience, and for Heisserer, it was a chance to publish something very different than the work he’s known for already. Not long after he put it up, he took it back down because the story was optioned and was set to be developed into a feature.
Heisserer ended up writing and directing the movie, and it’s a very lean exercise in tension, with Paul Walker starring as a father who has to keep his prematurely-born daughter alive as Hurricane Katrina hits land in New Orleans. It’s a fairly potent metaphor for the general challenge of parenthood, with each new crisis requiring a decision from Walker’s character, no matter what. His wife Abigail (Genesis Rodriguez) passes away during childbirth, so there’s no one else to fall back on. Walker has to make every choice. Walker has to solve every problem. Walker becomes the only force keeping that little girl alive, and he seems determined to succeed no matter what to toll it takes on him.
Walker is an actor I’ve found less than captivating in most of the roles I’ve seen him play. He seems like he’d be a great guy to drink a beer with, but he’s not terribly expressive. He’s like Keanu Reeves re-imagined as a high school quarterback. Here, he’s pretty much the entire show. Walker’s onscreen for the entire running team, and long stretches of the film feature no one else onscreen except for his infant daughter. What works is the way he plays the film as a guy who is in shock, trying to process the death of his wife even he has to confront the moment-to-moment reality of what’s happening to him. When they tell him his wife has passed, it’s obvious that he’s not even understanding the words at first. Walker isn’t the sort of actor given to huge histrionics anyway, and that reserve keeps things from being too maudlin. Rodriguez is very appealing as his wife, seen primarily in flashbacks to their life together that we see as he talks to his infant in the long lonely hours they spend together in the movie. She’s been making larger and larger appearances in films in the last year or so, and she’s really lovely here, suggesting a full relationship in just a few quick moments.
At first, the storm outside doesn’t seem like a major threat, but when the power goes out in the hospital, things start to get scary. They go from bad to worse, though, when the generators give out and Walker is forced to find a way to keep the respirator that keeps his premature infant alive running. He finds a small hand-cranked generator, only to learn that the battery attached to the respirator is good for three minutes of charge at a time. That means Walker is anchored to that room from that moment on, with no more than a three minute window away from his station, as the hours turn to days, and as the situation outside devolves completely.
There’s a big Hollywood version of this movie that I can imagine, completely with gunfights and bands of roving looters and a big chase scene finish, and I was pleased to see that Heiserrer didn’t try to make something bigger. The version of the story he’s telling is the one about one man’s determination to do whatever he has to do to give his daughter a chance at life. When they tell him at the beginning of the film that his daughter is in the most grave danger for the first 48 hours or so, or until she cries for the first time, you’d have to have never seen a movie in your life to not have some idea of where the film is going, but what I appreciated was how intimate Heiserrer chose to play everything.
Ultimately, the real villain in the film is fatigue, and there again, I think he’s made a somewhat canny metaphorical piece about what it feels like when you first are left to care for a baby. Any parent can attest to the special hellish fatigue that sets in when you haven’t really slept for any extended period of time in a week or so, and Walker finds himself battling to stay awake until help arrives. That, more than any other threat, is what he has to grapple with, and while other threats are also involved, I appreciated the way it kept coming back to a simple test of his will to keep that little girl alive.
The film certainly feels modest in scope and budget, and they make strong use of stock TV footage from the coverage of Katrina to help fill out what’s happening to New Orleans. Tech credits are solid across the board, and I think between this and last year’s Black List script “Story Of My Life,” Heisserer may have successfully put the reboots and remakes in his past and rebooted his own career completely.