Forget Cast Away. Forget Alive. Touching the Void, the true story of a pair of daredevil mountain climbers in the Peruvian Andes, may be the most harrowing, dazzling, haunting survival story ever filmed.
Joe Simpson and Simon Yates’s story is well known in climbing circles. More exactly, Joe’s story, or Joe’s side of their story, is well known; it was Joe who wrote the book about their unreplicated 1985 climb that has since become standard reading among serious climbers. Simon was uninvolved in the book, but he participated in the making of this adaptation, so director Kevin Macdonald’s film tells their story from both sides in a way it’s never been told before.
Macdonald tells the story two ways, intercutting talking-head interviews with Joe and Simon (as well as a third party who witnessed the beginning and the end of the story) with persuasive dramatic reeactment footage featuring a pair of compelling young actors, Brendan Mackey and Nicholas Aaron, in the roles of Joe and Simon.
Alive, another real-life survival story about a catastrophe on an icebound mountain, made a half-hearted attempt at a similar dual storytelling approach, with a scrap or two of pseudo-interview footage featuring John Malkovich as one of the survivors later in life, but it was too timid and didn’t work.
In Touching the Void, with ample genuine interview footage featuring the real survivors, the danger was all in the other direction: that the reenactment footage would seem staged and artificial by comparison.
In the hands of Macdonald and cinematographers Mike Eley and Keith Partridge, though, the reenactment is as absorbing and persuasive as this sort of thing can possibly be. Actors Mackey and Aaron bring matter-of-fact presence to the first half of the story, but have the acting chops for the heavy lifting in the harrowing second half. When disaster strikes and a catastrophic injury occurs, it strikes with all the wincing impact of the blade of the ice skate in Tom Hanks’s mouth in Cast Away.
The cinematography is more than enough to take your breath away. Part of it is simply the landscape itself, especially the awesome, snowbound face of Siula Grande, a 21,000-foot slope in Peru that has never been scaled before or since Joe and Simon’s ill-fated (but successful) climb. What’s especially unforgettable is the snow itself, not just draped across the mountain like a blanket, but piled and folded and sculpted into the most extravagant shapes, like some massive confectionary dessert heaped with mounds of impossibly detailed decorative icing.
Just as importantly, the filmmakers know how to shoot the mountain, emphasizing at turns its pristine beauty, intimidating immensity, alarming treacherousness, and complete indifference to the two flyspecks laboring on its side.
What happens to Joe in the story’s crucial second act seems almost like a religious allegory: Cast down from the heights, he descends almost literally into the netherworld, the valley of the shadow of death — a deep, dark, icy crevasse, "not a place for the living," in Joe’s words. Yet unlike the psalmist, Joe finds in the shadow of death no comforting divine presence — quite the opposite, in fact.
Looking back on his darkest hour, separated from his partner, facing almost certain death, Joe reflects that although he had long since turned his back on the devout Catholic faith of his upbringing, in the back of his mind there had always been a question whether, if his back were against the wall, he would be tempted to throw up a desperate Hail Mary or two.
Yet when the moment finally comes, he discovers that he has no such inclination to turn to God. He discovers, in fact, that he really, truly doesn’t believe in God, or immortality, or the soul. Confronted with the specter of his own imminent death, he sees only annihilation, a void.
Perhaps the proverb about no atheists in foxholes is an oversimplification. Perhaps it might be closer to the truth to say that there are no wafflers in foxholes. Death doesn’t necessarily confront a man with the truth about God, but it does confront him, perhaps, with the truth about himself. It may not be for everyone a window onto heaven, but it may be a mirror in which a man sees, perhaps, his true face… or perhaps sees that he has no face after all.
Or perhaps there is more truth in the proverb than Joes’s experience would suggest. Perhaps death in a mountain crevasse differs from death on the battlefield in that on the battlefield one may be able to find meaning or purpose in one’s cause, and thus perhaps in one’s death. Perhaps it’s the fact that Joe looks into the face of a death that would be meaningless that causes him to see there no reflection of divine presence. Why is Joe on the mountain in the first place? Earlier in the film he has said that it is because modern life has become too safe, too sanitized, and he feels somehow that an element of risk is necessary in order to feel alive. Perhaps that’s a cause worth suffering for but not dying for.
Interestingly, it isn’t only God toward whom Joe feels no inner movement in his hour of darkness. For some reason, he finds himself no more drawn to thoughts of mother or father, friends or sweethearts, than to God or the saints. Joe is alone. And, as he goes on, it’s this sense of aloneness, almost a "sense of being abandoned," that spurs him on, that drives him to push himself beyond endurance, beyond reason, beyond hope — not because he hopes to live, but only because he "wanted to be with someone when I died."
Ominously, Joe’s sense of aloneness is not always absolute. At one point the cosmic void seems almost actively hostile, as if occupied by some "malign presence out to get you — like somebody teasing an ant… they’re eventually going to step on." Simon, too, describes an uneasy foreboding of "retribution" for his partner’s fall, fearing he will never leave the mountain alive.
In the end, the overwhelming impression left by Touching the Void is numb astonishment that a human being could do what Joe did, survive through the circumstances he survived, and keep on going. Beyond that, in small ways, it attests something of the truth about the human person. It’s emphatically not an affirmation of faith, but it contemplates the meaning of unbelief and of aloneness in a thoughtful light.
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Thanks for your wonderful work. Your reviews are interesting, thought-provoking, and powerfully written. I recently read your review of Touching the Void and thought your description of the Peruvian mountain was magnificent.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.