‘Infinite Storm’ Film Review: Naomi Watts Anchors Visceral Mountain-Survival Drama

True story of grief and rescue works better in the thick of its intimate peril than when it tries to explain itself

Infinite Storm
Bleecker Street

Naomi Watts is no half-measures actor, as attested by her resume of vividly drawn women struggling with forces natural (“The Impossible”), unnatural (“King Kong”), and soul-crushingly internal (“21 Grams”).

For Watts, it’s as if psychic pain is a renewable resource for her characterization skills, and of late, she seems to have specialized in the dark allure of imperiled solitude, having played a paranoid urban shut-in (“The Wolf Hour”) and an isolated mom (“The Desperate Hour”) with all the physicality and interiority they require, whether or not the movies around her are any good.

Watts brings that same full-body intensity to Polish filmmaker Malgorzata Szumowska’s “Infinite Storm,” a yikes-y title which is also not a bad way to categorize the totality of her often relentlessly stricken characters. And like with “The Impossible,” she’s bringing a true story to life, playing Pam Bales, a registered nurse and mountain guide whose solitary trek up New Hampshire’s notorious Mount Washington one elementally threatening day in the fall of 2010 turned into a crucible of survival and, unwittingly, healing.

Szumowska’s film starts with the kinds of ordinary morning-of details that mark a feature story in a newspaper (the world first learned of Bales’ momentous day through an account written by Ty Gagne for the New Hampshire Union Leade) but which also allow for some exposition-tinged foreboding. There’s the pre-dawn alarm clock going off, some groaning, and how the emerging light delicately hits her bedhead as Pam gets up to prep for a hike. But a radio voice is telling us temperatures will go below freezing at a certain point. (Are those enough Clif bars, we wonder? Is that hat wool?)

Pam seems unfazed, however, singing in her car and amicably sloughing off the worries of her diner owner pal (Denis O’Hare) that this isn’t the day for solo-ing. “Mountains always listen, and never talk back,” she says, firmly. A former life is casually hinted at, one that suggests today’s is a reflective, therapeutic climb. Yet as she bolts, Szumowska cheekily lets the camera linger on a stuffed bear by the door. (OK, we think, Clif bars may not cut it.)

With her regular cinematographer Michal Englert in fine form, Szumowska’s imagery and pacing captures what’s meditative and bracingly physical about Pam’s snowy morning hike, and what’s simultaneously breathtaking and ominous about the terrain and its weather. (The Slovenian alps stand in for the northeastern US’s White Mountains.) With so much photography in wilderness movies either postcard-gorgeous or full-on menacing depending on a scene’s mood, it’s refreshing that Szumowska finds an arresting balance of both.

When a blizzard emerges in the late morning, Pam starts to turn back when she notices footsteps made by, of all things, sneakers. She assumes novice stupidity but what she finds is more unnerving: a seated, hunched figure, lightly clothed, near frozen, and unresponsive to her questions.

That Pam is a trained member of the park’s rescue team — a skill made clear to us from a scene earlier when she escapes perishing herself — makes this ill-equipped hiker one lucky dude. But to get the man she calls John (Billy Howle, “The Seagull”) down the mountain won’t merely involve battling a nightfall that carries with it a deadly storm, inhospitable passages, minimal supplies, and frostbite. She must also thwart the intangible hazard that is a soul who doesn’t want to be rescued.

As survival cinema, “Infinite Storm” has a certain rough, unpredictable energy, where the wild card that is John’s disposition butts up against Pam’s indefatigability and stay-with-me humor, which Watts embodies with a fizzy combination of toughness, compassion, and exasperation. It’s the aftermath, however, in which we learn the roots of Pam’s own trauma, and what her experience with John meant, that exposes “Infinite Storm” for the well-intentioned but uneven film about grief that it is.

Actor-turned-screenwriter Joshua Rollins turns what was a thank-you letter in real life into a quiet meeting; that summing-up impulse is understandable, and Szumowska’s actors do exactly what’s needed. But back on the mountain, Watts’ eyes big and searching, her steps determined, her look conquering but also vulnerable, she was already unpacking a full character, one whose own struggles didn’t need explaining. Pulling herself and a despairing stranger back from the brink tells us a lot.

When “Infinite Storm” goes on to make its points about going on, it’s fine, admirably wrenching (a Watts specialty), even touching when it insists, unnecessarily, on being articulate. But the movie’s secret sauce is humanity through action, what Watts’ Pam in all her heart, knowledge, grit, solitude, caring, irritation, and worry shows us when she’s in her element: what losing and finding looks like in real time.

“Infinite Storm” opens in US theaters March 25.