Touching the Void
The highest compliment I can pay to Kevin Macdonald’s Touching the Void is that few people will notice how radical it is. It’s a completely gripping, horrifying movie, and it’s so good that it’s easy to overlook what Macdonald has done: seriously undercut the idea that plot “spoilers” damage the experience one has with a movie.
It has become standard practice in film articles and reviews to alert readers before plot points or outcomes are revealed in print. The ostensible rationale is that viewers shouldn’t have their movies “spoiled” by nasty critics who give away what happens in a movie.
A more likely explanation is that readers complain bitterly about spoilers, such as this person bitching recently at Roger Ebert: “I was a upset that you revealed who the werewolf was in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.”
But what harm, really, do spoilers inflict?
You already know the outcome of most movies before you go in. For many people, that’s why they like movies — for the comfort of the predictable, for the habit, for the neat ordering of a chaotic world in a pleasing way. SPOILER ALERT: Spider-Man lives! (And I haven’t even seen the movie.) The resolution is a foregone conclusion. If the movie’s any good, the journey is more satisfying than its conclusion.
Some movies even exploit the sensitivity about spoilers for their own evil ends. The entire oeuvre of M. Night Shyamalan is predicated on the clever understanding that if you can’t discuss what happens in a movie for fear of giving away THE BIG SECRET, you can’t effectively criticize the film; barbs are vague and indirect, and make the writer look inarticulate and feeble when faced with the artistry of the great M. Night. Hell, critics for mainstream-media outlets can’t even intelligently talk about gotcha! movies such as The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, The Others, and The Usual Suspects without upsetting their gentle audiences.
But Touching the Void proves that suspense about the outcome is hardly the only way to derive pleasure from a movie. There’s no need to tiptoe around the movie’s resolution here, because Macdonald lays it out for you at the outset.
In 1985, young mountaineers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates attempted to climb Siula Grande in Peru. No one had done it successfully before.
They reach the peak without much trouble. The movie is 20 minutes old. Then things start to go wrong. They’ve run out of gas, so they can’t melt snow, so they’re dehydrated. Joe breaks his leg badly. In trying to lower Joe down the mountain, Simon drops him over a ledge, leaving him dangling over a crevasse. Simon doesn’t know this, and Joe is unable to climb the rope because of the cold and the pain in his leg.
Who will survive this ordeal?
Well, both of them.
How do you know?
Because Macdonald uses new documentary interviews with them from the very beginning of the movie. The result is a thriller whose suspense comes from the “how?” more than the “whether”: As the situation becomes more and more grim, you wonder how the hell this pair of guys — particularly Simpson, on whose book the movie is based — made it out alive.
As you watch the movie, you can’t imagine it being made any other way. Macdonald conducts separate talking-head-style interviews with Simon and Joe, as well as the eerily cheery man who kept camp for the climbers, and those are intercut with vivid re-creations of the anticlimactic ascent and the disastrous descent. (This mix of documentary and drama is similar to the approach used in the wonderful American Splendor, with the jokey and postmodern self-reference stripped out.) Macdonald’s dramatization is highly realistic — although he indulges some intrusive stylization as Joe’s physical and mental condition deteriorates — and the care taken to re-create the event results in a striking immediacy.
But Macdonald’s choices were brave if necessary. An interview-style documentary would lack the drama of Touching the Void; you wouldn’t feel the cold, the danger, the hopelessness.
Alternatively, the conventional Hollywood way to make the movie would be to simply dramatize it, to re-create the event for viewers without the participation of the actual climbers.
This approach has some serious pitfalls, though. Most importantly, nobody would ever believe that the story wasn’t tarted up for mass consumption, because Joe’s survival is simply incredible. Also hard to swallow — in a distasteful way, rather than in terms of whether such a thing might happen — is the way Simon assumes that Joe is dead and makes no effort to go back for him.
And think of what you’d lose with this straightforward treatment: the unemotional manner with which these two men tell their stories, their complete lack of regret, and the distressing way they refuse to dwell on Simon’s impossible choice with Joe hanging over the crevasse. Their flat, all-business tones haunt the film.
Touching the Void doesn’t linger on what Simon did, however, because it was done outside of a moral sphere; faced with almost certain death for both of them or certain death for one of them, he made a logically sound choice. One could claim it was a selfish decision, but, really, what was his alternative?
The movie ends abruptly and never makes an effort to answer the questions on everybody’s mind: How has this horror affected their lives, their relationship, their minds? It’s rare that I don’t want a movie to end, but I wanted more from Macdonald and Joe and Simon.
Still, Macdonald made the right decision. Like Simon, he played the angles and did what he had to. He approached the material in the only way that it would still be credible, and he took the necessary risk of revealing the outcome long before the audience has any idea how unlikely it is.
That Joe survived was nothing short of miraculous. That Macdonald tells you that Joe survived and still created such a skillful white-knuckle film is obviously a lesser feat, but still a great one.