An ingeniously simple setup is cunningly exploited for maximum suspense in “Hours,” a slow-building, consistently engrossing drama set during and immediately after the devastation wrought on New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina.
Making a most impressive debut as feature helmer, scripter Eric Heisserer graduates from savvy genre fare (“Final Destination 5”) to more mainstream moviemaking with this intense tale of a father’s desperate efforts to keep his prematurely born daughter alive in a hospital abandoned after power is knocked out by flooding.
The late Paul Walker (“Fast & Furious”) capably and compellingly rises to the demands of the role of Nolan Hayes, a loving husband who races his pregnant wife Abigail to a New Orleans hospital when she goes into labor unexpectedly. Onscreen titles announce the extent of the couple’s wrong-place/wrong-time hospital arrival: the early hours of Aug. 29, 2005, just as gale-force winds caused by Katrina relentlessly pummel the Crescent City.
Abigail dies during childbirth, but the stunned Nolan has little time to mourn. His newborn child is placed in a ventilator, where, a doctor explains, she must remain for at least 48 hours. Unfortunately, when the city’s levee system fails, floodwaters force the evacuation of the hospital. Worse still, the ventilator cannot be moved, so Nolan must remain behind with his daughter until help arrives.
It’s a long wait.
Through effective use of actual newscasts from the period, “Hours” underscores a brutal irony — Katrina actually missed New Orleans, but the levee breaks caused flooding in 80 percent of the city — while establishing the full measure of the threat facing Nolan and his newborn. When the power cuts off and backup generators fail, he must repeatedly crank a backup battery that works, at best, for three minutes between crankings, while scavenging for food and supplies throughout the hospital.
At one point, his spirits are lifted by the seemingly miraculous appearance of a rescue dog. But then other, far less welcome visitors arrive.
A few supporting players (including Kerry Cahill as a sympathetic nurse) are used fleetingly but effectively, and Genesis Rodriguez makes a strong impression with limited screen time in flashbacks. For the most part, though, “Hours” is practically a one-man show, with Walker alone on-camera for lengthy stretches as Nolan passes time talking to his baby, or himself, and dashing hither and yon between battery-cranks while on beat-the-clock explorations and supply runs.
The new father pushes himself to the point of exhaustion and beyond in ways that will ring true, and perhaps profoundly unsettle, simpatico parents watching the pic.
Walker gracefully balances the drama on his shoulders. His character’s situation seems all the more dire as Heisserer shrewdly amps up the tension with Benjamin Wallfisch’s propulsive musical score, Jaron Presant’s nimble lensing and Sam Bauer’s sharp editing.
It’s worth noting that “Hours” was filmed almost entirely inside a former New Orleans hospital that actually had to be closed after suffering massive flood damage in the wake of Katrina. That might help explain the pic’s overall air of verisimilitude, which only serves to enhance its impact.
“Hours,” a Film Arcade release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “thematic elements, violence and drug material.” Running time: 97 minutes.