One of the most impressive things about the career of the late Paul Walker is that once the Fast and Furious money started arriving in earnest after the fourth entry in that series, he was a strong supporter of independent film. In 2013, Walker executive-produced two films so small in scale that they would qualify as impossible to get made without him on board. The first, Vehicle 19, is an innovative little action picture that is well deserving of an iTines rental. The other, Walker’s final completed film Hours, works better as a character study than as a thriller, but deserves commendation for its ambition.
Hours opens with its worst scene, as Nolan Hayes (Walker) learns that his wife Abigail (Genesis Rodriguez) died while giving birth prematurely to their daughter during Hurricane Katrina. Walker’s “I’m in denial!” acting is terrible, and the doctor in the scene – like most of the supporting actors – is quite wooden. The film improves once the story kicks in shortly thereafter, as a problem is presented to Nolan by the hurricane: his daughter must stay in an incubator for a few days, the power is out, and the incubator’s battery only has 3 minutes’ worth of charge in it. Nolan will have to pump the crank on a generator constantly, for days, while dealing with the various dangers that come with being in a flooded disaster zone.
Although the plot might sound like the premise for a Crank-esque action film, that’s not what writer/director Eric Heisserer is interested in. The challenges faced by Nolan are, for the most part, mundane: the search for a radio, the need to keep his daughter supplied with saline solution for her IV, the battle against exhaustion. There are eventually some encounters with armed looters, but even then, the action is modest and not titillating. Heisserer and Walker are more interested in this lonely, grieving man, and in exploring what emotions keep him going through this nigh-hopeless situation.
Heisserer may have written himself into a corner from the get-go, by allowing the battery just 3 minutes of charge at the start. Three minutes would barely be enough time to let a scene develop if it were shot in real time, and this film definitely is not shot in real time. As the movie goes on and the battery’s charge shrinks under 2 minutes, a number of scenes have their thrill neutered by the short clock. The operative question in most scenes is not “How is he going to overcome this obstacle?” but “Shouldn’t he be getting back to the battery pretty soon?”, which puts a lot of the burden on Walker for selling the scene’s tension.
Walker is not up to this demanding task in every scene. Those scenes in which he personifies the incubator (calling it “Mister Machine”) or when he is looking for essential tools (while muttering “Batteries, batteries, batteries” or “Radio!”) are full of goofy talking to himself that reek of a writer’s fear of any scene lacking dialogue. First and foremost, Hours demonstrates how difficult it must have been to make the recent Robert Redford film All is Lost, since despite their best efforts, everyone involved with Hours cannot avoid the traditional traps of single-character-alone movies – traps that All is Lost avoids.
Still, Walker is effective in the flashback scenes with Rodriguez, or when he is talking to his daughter about her. In any scene where he is allowed to demonstrate what Nolan is grieving for in between turns of the crank, Walker delivers the same everyman charm that grounded him amidst the increasingly bonkers action of his signature franchise. Hours is by no means a perfect film, but it shows that the world of independent cinema suffered an equally tragic loss on November 30 as Universal Pictures did.
– Mark Young