Hours is one of the most relentlessly tedious films of the year. It might be more aptly named Days, for the amount of time it seems to take to crawl from its opening to closing credits. Set mostly during the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Hours inexplicably attempts to relate the terror and uncertainty felt by those in the storm’s path by keeping its protagonist confined almost entirely to a quiet, abandoned hospital. It’s far from a winning formula, despite a strong performance from the late, lamented Paul Walker.
The film opens as Nolan Hayes (Walker) arrives at a New Orleans hospital with his pregnant wife, Abigail (Genesis Rodriguez), who has gone into early labor. When Abigail dies in childbirth and Katrina forces an evacuation of the hospital, Nolan is left to watch over his newborn baby and ensure that her ventilator remains functional. Power outages, floodwaters, opportunistic looters and fatigue all prove formidable opponents as Nolan struggles to save his daughter’s life.
First-time director Eric Heisserer does his best to capture the dark, hazy days following Katrina but isn’t quite up to the task. He never manipulates the camera with the verve or enthusiasm that such a constrained story demands, resulting in many curiously inert scenes. Odd angle choices and an overbearing sense of banality further undermine any value Hours could have once possessed as a thriller.
Walker, in a rare dramatic role between Fast & Furious entries, is trusted to carry the entire picture. Though the actor is much better as a distressed Everyman than he’s ever been as a cool cucumber, it’s unfortunate that he’s not quite powerful enough to mask Hours‘ plainly terrible writing. Only a select few actors can successfully support an entire movie – Tom Hanks did it in Cast Away, as did Robert Redford in this year’s All is Lost - but a strong script is just as essential as a capable actor. Walker is dealt a terrible hand, though Hours likely marks the actor’s finest achievement. He’s entirely convincing in flashbacks to his fairy-tale romance with Abigail, and he almost sells Nolan’s grief and desperation in the face of calamity. Unfortunately, as Nolan wanders through the hospital, talking to himself and looking for items to help him keep his baby’s ventilator going, Walker’s best efforts can’t bring a thoroughly dull character to life.
Hours‘ pitiful screenplay (also by Heisserer) is really to blame. Particularly during the opening scenes, the film feels like a parody of hospital dramas, complete with sluggish dialogue and remarkably shoddy acting. Early on, a doctor casually tells Nolan about his wife’s death as an afterthought, while praising the successful delivery of Nolan’s child. Later, another hospital employee perkily tells the newly widowed man that, “At least you have a child, that’s good news.” The script never strikes a balance between its dark drama and touches of humor. ”You’re playing dirty, Mr. Machine!” Nolan yells to an uncooperative piece of hospital equipment, one of a few unintentionally riotous moments.
Luckily, Heisserer knows more about filmmaking than writing, wisely taking occasional breaks from close-ups on Walker. Inherently powerful news footage from 2005 is intercut with Nolan’s struggle to keep his baby alive – images of the actual devastation in New Orleans are utterly heartbreaking. There’s also a great, albeit brief moment in the film when Nolan goes out on the roof and finally sees the city falling down around him. Alas, the film’s nearly nonexistent budget means Nolan is confined to one wing of a dark hospital for almost the entirety of Hours‘ 97-minute runtime. For a Katrina story, the hurricane is strangely absent.
Hours picks up a little when it gets a kick of suspense late in the game. Two looters with guns enter the building, resolved to kill Nolan and raid the hospital for any remaining supplies. The impromptu cat-and-mouse game that ensues is the only time Hours comes close to living up to its promise as a beat-the-clock nail-biter.
Unfortunately, the film’s half-baked script means that even those scenes are never as gripping as they should have been. As a whole, Hours is riddled with plot holes, painfully stiff dialogue and a pervading sense of pointlessness – if Nolan had ever thought through his situation during the ordeal, which lasts for more than two days, he could have come up with a better approach than hand-cranking the ventilator every three minutes.
The film’s tagline – “Every second counts” – is an ironic one, given how frequently and horrifically Hours drags. Walker tries so hard that it’s plainly upsetting to see him trapped in such treacly melodrama, and Heisserer never does more than hand his lead actor frustratingly sub-par material. Given post-Katrina New Orleans as a setting, Hours should have been riveting, but the film can’t even muster enough tension to fill out its short length. All Hours ever amounts to is Walker ranting at an unconscious baby for an hour and a half – it’s exactly as monotonous and mundane as it sounds. The title might as well refer to the hours of my life I can never get back.