In a thriller set during the chaos of Hurricane Katrina in the summer of 2005, the sturdiest structure in writer/director Eric Heisserer’s debut feature “Hours” turns out to be the screenplay. An architectural marvel of efficiency and effectiveness, the film takes place in the less secure locale of a New Orleans hospital not far from where the levees broke.
As with nearly every aspect of “Hours,” the famed storm serves as a narrative shortcut rather than as a defining event, a touchstone for the audience to quickly realize what odds its hero Nolan (Paul Walker) is up against on what should be the best day of his life as he awaits the birth of his first child. Instead, as the wind beats against the windows of the waiting room, it soon deteriorates into the worst as Nolan is left to care for his newborn daughter who is hooked up to a ventilator as the hospital evacuates and the power begins to fail. Without electricity, Nolan can only provide energy to the ventilator through a hand-cranked generator, each charge only good for roughly three minutes, time in which the new dad can begin plotting his way out of this desperate situation.
Of course, things only get worse for Nolan, but while his ability to keep his baby breathing appears unsustainable in the face of the rising tide of water and looters on the outside, the ticking clock premise is surprisingly durable. While how much Nolan is able to pack in during those moments away from his daughter occasionally stretches credibility, those who aren’t keeping their stopwatch out will surely be diverted enough not to notice during the tightly-wound 90 minutes.
Likewise, if one is forgiving of the one or two instances where the typically stoic Walker is called upon to crumble emotionally at the drop of a hat, he proves to be ideally suited to the role of Nolan, an everyman who doesn’t crack under pressure. Walker has never been known for expressive performances, but he wears grief convincingly, letting it ooze out slowly while keeping his concentration at the task at hand. Heisserer builds in enough grace notes for the character to hint at his vulnerable side without needing Walker to demonstrate it directly, expending just the right amount of energy on Nolan’s conversations with his daughter, recalling her mother in softly lit flashbacks that remarkably don’t ever feel cloying.
That actually makes it all the more interesting when “Hours” shifts gears to a more action-oriented film in the final third. With likely nothing left but his daughter if they survive the storm, Nolan’s focus only becomes more intense and so it goes with the film. Although the action scenes don’t break any new ground visually, Heisserer is quite adept at establishing mood with a particular flair for interesting colors and keeping up the pace. While I wish the film had injected a little more local flavor into the proceedings, which run towards a more traditional hard-boiled Hollywood thriller, it’s worth noting my favorite shot of the film involved a bag of Zapp’s Potato Chips dangling precariously in a vending machine, just out of the reach of a hungry Nolan as he gathers supplies. An apt analogy for the rest of the film, even the snack bags hold tension here.
“Hours” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play SXSW three more times on Tuesday, March 12th at the Stateside Theatre at 6:45 p.m., Wednesday, March 13th at the Violet Crown 1 & 2 at 3:30 p.m. and Friday, March 15th at the Rollins Theatre at 9:15 p.m.