There’s a quiet moment early on in Infinite Storm that summarizes the odd mindset of mountain hikers. Before setting off for the summit of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, Pam Bales looks back at a fellow hiker unpacking in the parking lot, appreciating that this is the last person she may ever see again. The film is about the opposing attitudes hikers like her carry on their shoulders — an acceptance of death amid a perseverance to survive. Infinite Storm works best when it explores this mindset in an unspoken, visceral way rather than a traditionally dramatic one.
Written by Joshua Rollins and directed by Malgorzata Szumowska, the film tells the true story of Bales’ heroic hike in 2010, in which a trail of sneaker tracks in the snow led her to discover a man (Billy Howle) freezing to death. Finding him unresponsive and seemingly on drugs, she calls him “John” and drags him down the mountain.
Here, the film’s tension lies not only in John’s physical inability to move but in his seeming resentment toward Pam for trying to save him. This leads to cursing, fighting and even delirious laughter. Rollins’ script effectively accentuates the natural, defensive humor that comes from being in such an absurdly nightmarish situation.
Szumowska and cinematographer Michal Englert capture the simultaneous beauty and horror of nature, using the Slovenian Alps as a substitute for New England’s White Mountains. The camera lingers on ominous clouds engulfing the mountains in darkness. Whether you watch the film in theaters or on a streaming platform, you’ll feel the harsh winter wind whipping against your face.
Perhaps appropriately, the film slows down as Pam and John descend further down the mountain. The third act is far from climactic and triumphant. It grows to feel like they do — tired and surreal.
Throughout the film, Rollins gives us hints that Pam and John share similar pasts tainted with tragedy. But it’s more engaging to see them work through that trauma up on the mountain than safely down below. That’s the appeal of nature-based survival dramas — seeing people use their past personal battles to fight through an extreme situation that’s larger than life. In the beginning of the film, Pam refers to the mountain as a therapist. But by the end, she expresses her deepest regret over coffee in a hiker’s lounge. Sure, it’s an embrace of human connection, but it also feels like a resolution that’s too neat and tidy given the chaotic, complex conflict that precedes it. And Bales basically explains the meaning of the film’s title in a way that feels all too simplistic.
Watts delivers a performance of both endearing warmth and icy tenacity, and Howle does a lot with a little as John. Along with their battle against the elements, their interplay is one of the film’s key strengths.
As it stumbles toward what feels like an easy, maudlin ending, this film pales in comparison to other survival dramas. But its harrowing first two acts are well worth watching, especially if you let yourself get swept up in the storm in a dark theater.