Greetings again from the darkness. Naomi Watts is a gifted actress and always elevates her films, but can someone please cast her in a comedy? The lady deserves a chance to lighten up a bit. Known for her dramatic turns, this may be her most physically demanding role yet. The film is based on a true story and the life of Pam Bales. Director Malgorzata Szumowska and co-writer Joshua Rollins, with input from Ms. Bales, recreate the remarkable events of 2010 on Mount Washington in The White Mountains of New Hampshire.
We first see Pam Bales (Watts) as her alarm goes off early, and she goes about preparing for a six-hour trek up the mountain. This includes layering her backpack and her clothes for the below freezing temperatures. She stops by the café where her friend (Denis O’Hare) pours her some hot cocoa and tries to talk her out of the climb due to the possibility of lousy weather (which is saying something for this area). However it’s clear this date is important to her when she says the climb is “cheaper than therapy”, because “mountains always listen and don’t talk back.” Pam has a special connection to the mountain and to nature.
As she begins her journey, Pam sees a couple of campers finishing up their stay. One of them is Eliot Sumner (offspring of musician Sting), who also wrote and performed a song for the film. The other is played by the film’s writer, Joshua Rollins. Pam also notices another car in the parking lot, which, although she doesn’t know it at the time, does set the stage for her day. Often covered in goggles and snow gear, the hike offers Pam the serenity for reflection, as well as some mind-clearing physical exertion. One misstep sends us the flashback of why this day and climb is so important to Pam; but it’s a trail of sneaker tracks in the snow that change the day every bit as much as the approaching storm that caused her to cut the hike short.
Those sneaker tracks are a recognizable sign of trouble to an experienced climber, nurse, and Search and Rescue Team member. Pam follows them to a near-death man suffering from hypothermia. Since he is initially non-responsive, she calls him “John” (Billy Howle, ON CHESIL BEACH, 2017) and proceeds to coax, drag, and all but carry him as they begin the slow battle down against the mountain and the weather elements. As he regains some semblance of awareness, John makes it clear he doesn’t want to be rescued and was trying to end his life on the mountain. Pam ignores this and sternly informs him that she will not leave him behind.
Cinematographer Michal Englert does a terrific job of capturing both the beauty and danger, although there is one close-up of Pam’s whistle that seems a bit out of place (minor quibble). Filmed in Slovenia (as a stand-in for New Hampshire), the weather and the view are co-stars with Ms. Watts, and the blizzard is blinding and treacherous, making Pam’s actions even more incredible. The film can be taken as the story of one woman’s determination, but it can also show how grief is powerful … and so is a helping hand. One person can certainly have a dramatic impact on the life of another and the way this real-life ordeal played out is quite interesting. Ty Gagne’s was the first to publish Pam’s story in his article, “Footprints in the Snow lead to an Emotional Rescue” in New Hampshire Union Leader. As always, the film earns bonus points for including “Katie Belle Blue” by Townes Van Zandt … and we can relate to Pam’s difficulty in singing along. The likelihood of Naomi Watts taking on a comedy seems remote, as she’s already slated for a remake of the 2014 Australian horror movie, GOODNIGHT MOMMY.
Opens in theaters Friday, March 25, 2022