I’m a bit at a loss of what to write here. I’ve always been weird toward deaths of well known individuals as to when how soon is “too soon.” After spending the last few days thinking of all the positives of Paul Walker’s career, when is it safe to talk about the negatives again? Sure Walker is the most attractive everyman I’ve ever seen, but he just never quite got the right material to emphasize it. He’s always been stuck in middling solo films or in big name franchises playing second fiddle to someone else.
But Paul Walker was always trying to be more than a pretty face. Those middling solo films like Eight Below? It was his attempt at branching out past the action star he was portrayed as. With Hours, Walker once again tried to break out of that “Everyman” mold…with stymied success.
Directors: Eric Heisserer
Release Date: December 13, 2013 (limited and VOD)
Hours leaves Nolan (Walker) stranded in a hospital in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina as he struggles to keep his premature daughter alive through a breathing apparatus for 48 hours. It’s essentially several plots of movies mashed into one. There’s 127 Hours (a man is trapped and isolated for a duration of time), John Q (a man traps himself inside of a hospital trying to get his son the treatment he needs), and thanks to the setting, you have slight post-apocalyptic I Am Legend influences (a lonely man and his dog trying to survive in the darkness). I’d hate to boil down Hours that way, but I really have no choice. Hours struggles with the cliches and pitfalls of the “survival thriller” genre throughout. But that doesn’t mean it’s a complete write-off, either.
Sure Hours does lots of things you’ve seen before (talking to hallucinations, fighting with other survivors, running around in the dark), but it truly shines when it explores the heart of each of these situations. Something about constantly tying the events of the film with news clips of Katrina keeps the film grounded when it has the potential to careen into cliche. It makes the film seem realistic even when it asks you to stretch that belief in some scenes. Thankfully, that believably also extends toward Walker’s character leading to the best character portrayal of the late Walker’s career. He absolutely nails it.
I keep referring to Walker as an “Everyman,” so I should probably explain myself. The term “Everyman” is generally used to refer to a character, or an actor, the audience can relate with. He doesn’t have any extraordinary abilities, but he’s placed within extreme circumstances. But no matter how crazy a story gets, the audience will always view an Everyman as the anchor to attach themselves to. Paul Walker always excelled in this area. It’s why he was needed in every Fast & Furious movie, it’s why he was in the nonsensical crime film Takers alongside T.I., and it’s why the survival thriller subgenre is so successful. Hours finally allows Walker to be the lead man he was always meant to be. It milks his Everyman qualities for all they’re worth and yields great results.
You see, Hours lays on the sadness pretty heavily. The amount of negative things happening to Nolan almost reach cartoonish levels of preposterousness. His wife dies in the beginning of the film, he has to keep his baby’s respirator running for 48 hours, he’s attacked by folks, he starves, and it keeps piling on. But the recent era setting and Walker’s lovable nature make you root for him anyway. As the events of the film become more and more “been there, done that” Walker lends the believability the scenes need to succeed. There’s one scene in particular (fortunately, I won’t spoil it here) that would’ve fallen completely on its face due to its overwhelming melancholy if Walker weren’t at the center of it. Walker elevates the material and adds a layer of introspective hope that just isn’t there otherwise.
There are moments in Hours which border on great if only they were explored a little further. Nolan’s slightly characterized through his daughter and what he’s willing to do for her, but there are some opportunities to show it which are swept under the rug. One moving scene has Nolan showing photos to his daughter, but it’s quickly sped through in a songless montage. Then one scene has Nolan talking to a hallucination of his wife that would’ve been a great dissection of introspection vs. affirmation (as Nolan is only trying to reaffirm faith in himself) if it lasted longer.
This magical realism (where mystical things can coexist along with realistic things in one world without much hassle) pervades the rest of the film as each flashback is tinted through a nostalgic filter, but it’s a theme that may have just been stumbled upon. Plenty of these potentially great scenes are unfortunately skewered in favor of generic action. Yes Nolan has to meet other survivors, but does he have to interact with them that much? Don’t tease an isolation film and back off from it at the last minute.
Despite all of my qualms with Hours, it has one of the best finales in the genre. I won’t go into detail here, but because of Walker’s believability and the film’s emphasis on hope rather than depression, one of the more cliche shots of the film also deserves the most praise and analysis. Given the rest of the film you could easily assume the film ended on a hopeful note, but given the magical realism presented within it, it could potentially be the most depressing thing you’ll see all year.
The saddest part of Hours, however, is that Paul Walker truly shines as he shows off a lot of potential that was tragically cut short. He emotes, he contemplates, he shows different sides of himself, and it’s what we wanted from him all along. It was a damn fine step in the right direction. Whether or not Hours is Paul Walker’s last film, it should be remembered with his best works. Although the film itself isn’t exactly the pinnacle of its genre, Walker’s performance shows every aspiring Everyman how to do it. This is how you relate to people.