Sometimes you’re the rescuer.
Sometimes you’re the one who needs rescuing.
And sometimes you’re both.
That’s certainly the case with Pam Bales, the flinty focus of the fact-based drama Infinite Storm.
As embodied by the indefatigable Naomi Watts, she’s a veritable force of nature.
But she’s not the only one.
Infinite Storm (which takes its title from John Muir’s observation that “the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty”) follows the fortunes of Pam Bales, a veteran presence in New Hampshire’s rugged White Mountains, as she battles to save an utterly unprepared hiker caught in a raging blizzard.
But the struggle for survival involves facing down more than whipping winds, blowing snow and freezing temperatures.
Both characters have private reasons for placing themselves at risk climbing Mt. Washington, sometimes referred to as “the most dangerous small mountain in the world.” (The movie may be set in New England, but Slovenia provides the locations.)
As Infinite Storm begins, we hear an ominous weather report warning of snow and “one of the coldest nights we’ve seen for awhile.”
But, haunted by a past trauma, Pam is determined to hit the trail anyway. “You know what day it is,” she reminds a friend (Denis O’Hare) who tries to dissuade her. Besides, “it’s cheaper than therapy — and the mountains always listen and never talk back.”
At least Pam listens as the storm intensifies, convincing her to head back in the face of such fierce weather.
That is, until she spots a solitary figure (Billy Howle) huddled at the edge of a cliff.
Barely conscious, barely able to move — because of hypothermia taking hold — the lone hiker, wearing sneakers instead of hiking boots, seems resigned to his apparent fate.
But Pam isn’t. Dubbing her charge “John” (because she’s got to call him something), she informs him, “My name’s Pam and I’m going to get you out of here.”
Easier said than done, as Infinite Storm follows their treacherous trek in harrowing detail.
Aside from the grueling physical challenges, the psychological ones provide an additional obstacle, with the resistant John wallowing in anguish, crying, “We’re not going to make it. We’re going to die.”
“Save the tears,” Pam informs him. “Not now.”
There’ll be time for tears later, once they make it down the mountain.
Inspired by Bales’ 2010 rescue, Infinite Storm’s script (by Joshua Rollins) interweaves the stormy present with Pam’s recollections of a happier past.
Director Malgorzata Szumowska (whose 2020 Never Gonna Snow Again earned accolades at the Venice Film Festival and Polish Film Awards) employs ticking-clock pacing to underline the peril our protagonists face. (It’s a peril we share thanks to her stirring, immersive visual approach.)
And Watts, as always, finds a way to deliver potent emotional notes, even with winds howling all around her as she delivers infinite variations of “trust me,” ‘hang on” and “I’m gonna get you down the mountain.”
Trust her you can, and get us down the mountain she does.