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Ebiri: The Hurricane Katrina–Set Hours, One of Paul Walker’s Final Movies, Is Tense, Sad, and Strange

Watching Hours now, in the wake of Paul Walker’s tragic death, is understandably tough. What was once meant to be a tight little indie drama about a man struggling to keep his newborn baby alive during Hurricane Katrina gains more gravity and urgency. As our minds almost instinctively break the fourth wall between actor and person, the film becomes a meditation on mortality, even more than it already is.

Yeah, fine, but how’s the movie? Tense, sad, and strange — and I think that would apply regardless of any unfortunate real-life resonance. When we first meet Nolan Hayes (Walker), he’s rushing alongside his pregnant wife Abigail (Genesis Rodriguez) as she’s wheeled into a New Orleans emergency room. Their baby daughter has arrived a few weeks early, and the soon-to-be-catastrophic storm is quickly approaching, too. Sitting in the waiting room, consumed in prayer and thought, Nolan barely flinches when a window behind him is blown out by the hurricane and everyone else scurries in panic. In an action movie — in the kind of film Walker usually made — this would be a sign of his badassery; here, it’s a sign of his despair.

Nolan is right to be concerned. His wife dies in childbirth, leaving him to stand guard over their baby, who is stuck inside a neonatal incubator, hooked up to an IV and an apparatus that lets her breathe. As the eerily calm hospital around him slowly descends into chaos and has to be evacuated, Nolan can’t go anywhere; he has to stay behind in the hospital with his child. The power goes out, then the flood washes in and the emergency power goes out, too. Nolan discovers that the ventilator’s battery can’t hold a charge. So he finds a big, unwieldy, hand-cranked generator, which he has to keep cranking every two or three minutes just to keep his baby breathing.

Such a setup gives the film an odd, interesting rhythm. Other race-against-the-clock movies usually rely on movement to build tension: Somebody has to get something somewhere by a certain hour and they have to run, drive, fly, or whatever. (Think Run Lola Run, or Walker’s own Running Scared.) Here, our hero keeps returning to the same hospital room; he can’t even really go out to look for help. Even the chaotic aftermath of Katrina just filters through in drips and drabs. Most of the time, Nolan is stuck in the dark and isolated, with just the sound of the machine keeping his baby alive for company. It would be agonizing to watch regardless, but now it’s especially agonizing because even as we worry about the baby and the danger it’s in, we’re reminded of Walker’s own vulnerability.

This is a more challenging and serious role than the actor’s usual parts, and, at first, he struggles with it. When the doctor tells Nolan his wife has died, we don’t quite buy the ensuing emotional breakdown. But part of that has to be on writer-director Heisserer: The doctor doesn’t exactly deliver the news with what we’d call sensitivity, and the whole scene seems off, in a way. Walker does better during the rest of the film, when he has to struggle to keep the baby’s incubator going. Occasionally, he talks to the child. Sometimes, he talks to himself. Here, the actor’s more ordinary qualities — the casualness of his demeanor, his general likability — serve him well. He’s a guy out of his element, and we want to see him survive and succeed.

For all the uniqueness of its setup, Hours follows along a fairly predictable path. But it’s at its best when it’s at its most quiet. The film’s brooding tension would probably work even without the recent tragedy of real-life events. But now, while uneven, the film is uniquely involving — right down to a final shot that will break your heart into a million pieces.

Photo: Pantelion Films