In Review: 'Thirteen Lives,' 'Resurrection'
Ron Howard's inspirational drama about the Thai cave rescue plays it too safe and a psychological horror film with Rebecca Hall and Tim Roth goes over the edge.
Dir. Ron Howard
Leave it to Ron Howard to deliver exactly what you’d expect from a Ron Howard Thai cave rescue movie. It was inevitable that someone with a budget would make a feature about the extraordinary international effort to evacuate 12 boys and their soccer coach from deep within the flooded Tham Luang Nang Non cave system in northern Thailand—arguably the only successful human endeavor of the 21st century. For Howard, a director looking for terra firma after the Hillbilly Elegy fiasco, the job must have seemed like a safe choice, his down-the-middle craftsmanship suited to a story that doesn’t require much spin on the ball. The rescue effort is so astounding in itself, such a model of courage and ingenuity and institutional will, that no embellishment would seem to be necessary.
Thirteen Lives reveals the hidden flaws in that line of thinking. WhileHoward certainly knows how to stage this rescue mission’s complex, multi-planed action, he doesn’t bring a strong point of view to the material–or really much of an angle at all, other than allowing a familiar inspirational true story to inspire again, which worked for him before with Apollo 13. It isn’t enough to offer just a straightforward tick-tock of events, and that’s not just because last year’s gripping documentary The Rescue, from Free Solo directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, already got there first, with full participation from the real people involved. Howard’s telling is skilled but superfluous.
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One formidable problem is that the filmmakers have found no characters who can help establish a point of view or emotional ballast. The most obvious candidates would be Richard Stanton and John Volanthen, the two British cave-divers who first found the stranded soccer team four kilometers from Tham Luang’s mouth and then spearheaded the audacious plan to extract them safely. But putting too much emphasis on Stanton and Volanthen would promote a White Savior narrative that’s both unsavory and ignorant of the larger picture. It would be unfair to short change the heroism of Ekkaphon Chanthawong, the 25-year-old assistant coach who took care of the boys underground, or the Thai Navy SEALs who risked their lives, including one who died of asphyxiation while delivering diving cylinders to a cave chamber. And that’s to say nothing of the steadfast political leadership, the desperate parents, or the massive effort to divert monsoon water from the cave.
Howard and his screenwriter, William Nicholson, who co-wrote the 2015 disaster movie Everest, choose a democratized approach, which seems fair, but also leave the film a bit rudderless. It doesn’t help that Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and Volanthen (Colin Farrell) are not particularly distinctive characters, other than sharing a passion for the dangerous hobby of diving into narrow underwater cave systems.
Howard capably reveals the rescue mission as the pieces come together: The pumps flushing water out of the cave, the forest sinkholes adding to the flood, the physicians and Thai military on the scene, and, finally, Stanton and Volanthen, who are among the few people in the world with the expertise to squeeze through a warren of submerged tunnels with scuba equipment. Finding the stranded soccer team is a miracle in itself, but getting them out is seemingly impossible. For that, they call on Richard Harris (Joel Edgerton), an anesthetist who reluctantly agrees to a desperate and ethically dubious plan to sedate the stranded team members, one by one, and lead them through an hours-long trip to safety.
Other than some private moments when Stanton, Volanthen, and Harris ruminate over the gamble they’ve agreed to make—if they succeed in saving one boy, for example, they will be expected to work that same miracle 12 more times—there’s little in Thirteen Lives that isn’t a matter of public record or treated with more urgency and tension in The Rescue. Howard’s version may play differently for those who haven’t seen the documentary, but his capable rendering of this heavily scrutinized event isn’t ambitious enough. With everyone on screen so far out on a limb, it seems like the wrong time for a director to be so risk-averse.
Thirteen Lives opens in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago on Friday. It starts streaming on Amazon Prime on August 5th.
Dir. Andrew Semans
With respect to the range of her performances, from the sensual adventurer of Vicky Cristina Barcelona to the psychologically wounded reporter in Christine, Rebecca Hall always projects a formidable intelligence—an intelligence that like Tilda Swinton’s, is made all the more imposing by her height. So when she’s asked to show vulnerability, it can register like a disturbing crack in the facade, because she seems so thoroughly put-together on the surface. For his first feature Resurrection, writer-director Andrew Semans fully exploits Hall’s specific strengths, following Margaret (Hall), an executive at a pharmaceutical company, as she devolves from the model of have-it-all single motherhood to a broken, wraith-like shell of her former self. The transformation is so shocking, it tips what initially seems like a ’90s-style psychological thriller into a horror film of Cronenberg-flavored madness.
Nobody sees it coming. In the first scene, Margaret is counseling an intern whose boyfriend continues to make jokes at her expense, belittling gentle requests that he stop. “Sadists never understand why other people don’t enjoy their sadism as much as they do,” Margaret says, an insight we’ll later learn she gleaned from personal experience. But in these early scenes, Semans stresses her prowess in the conference room and her contented life at home, where she looks after Abbie (Grace Kaufman), a 17-year-old about to start college, and orders up casual sex with a married co-worker (Michael Esper) like a DoorDash delivery.
Then, in a single moment, it all falls apart. While attending a dull conference for work, Margaret catches a glimpse of David (Tim Roth), and reacts with raw panic, bursting out of the room and gasping for breath. David starts to turn up in other places, too, seeming something like a ghost until Margaret tells her intern a story about a man from her own past, 20 years earlier, whose cruelty was so outlandish that it’s hard to know whether the tale could possibly be true. Semans encourages that ambiguity for a while, too, as Margaret’s increasingly erratic behavior at work and at home contrasts with the calm David projects when we glimpse him, at first always in public spaces, making it seem like she’s unhinged for no reason. It is a potent form of gaslighting, with David settling back into the power he asserted over her at a much younger age.
Starting roughly with Hall’s second monologue to the intern, delivered in a self-consciously bravura seven-minute take, Resurrection unravels as precipitously as its lead character, mimicking the woman-on-the-verge lunacy of Isabelle Adjani in Andrzej Zulawski’s cult favorite Possession. While Margaret’s psychic breakdown doesn’t veer as wildly into the supernatural, Semans pushes her to the limit and beyond, particularly with Abbie, who she’s so eager to protect that she teaches her to do whiskey shots just to prevent her from leaving their apartment. Hall allows herself to go full Adjani, which contrasts well with Roth’s preternatural calm, but the more Resurrection strays from real-world trauma and violence, the less effective it becomes. By abstracting Margaret’s terror, Semans makes her seem progressively unidentifiable, right up to a macabre ending that completely exits the building. Then again, perhaps Semans means to suggest that certain violations cannot be overcome.
Resurrection opens in limited release on Friday. It will be rentable from the usual platforms on August 5th.
That photo of Hall reminds me that if we HAVE to have a PJ Harvey Biopic, we better get going while Hall is young enough to pull it off.
Whew! Resurrection sounds like just my kind of thriller though. I think I'll have to check it out.