Chalk it up as a tragic irony of an untimely demise: At the time he was killed Saturday in a Los Angeles auto mishap at the ridiculously young age of 40, Paul Walker was less than two weeks away from seeing how movie audiences and VOD viewers would respond to what arguably was the finest performance of his career up to that point, as a desperate father who triumphs over death. (Trailer below.)
In "Hours," writer-director Eric Heisserer’s suspenseful indie drama, Walker plays Nolan Hayes, a loving husband who rushes his pregnant wife to a New Orleans hospital just before sunrise on Aug. 29, 2005 – just as Hurricane Katrina begins its brutal assault on the Crescent City. Unfortunately, Nolan’s wife dies during childbirth. Even more unfortunately, his prematurely born daughter must remain inside a ventilator for at least 48 hours.
The New Orleans levees break, the city streets are flooded, the hospital is evacuated – but Nolan must remain behind, alone with his infant offspring, because the ventilator cannot be moved. And when the power goes out, the increasingly anxious father must maintain constant vigilance – because the hand-cranked back-up battery for the ventilator works for, at best, three minutes between crankings.
As I wrote in Variety after the drama’s SXSW Film Festival premiere last March: “'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 film “capably and compellingly rises to the demands of the role,” and “gracefully balances the drama on his shoulders.”
Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not one of those snobs who dismiss the guilty-pleasure appeal of Walker’s full-throttle action-heroics in the "Fast & Furious" franchise. (Although I must admit: I enjoyed his work just as much, if not more, in a genre movie of a scarier kind, John Dahl’s "Joy Ride.") It’s just that, in "Hours," I saw him doing things -- and expressing emotions – that indicated he also was fully capable of more challenging roles in more complex movies.
And when I spoke to him at SXSW last March, I got the distinct impression that he, too, knew he’d taken full advantage of a showcase for his heretofore underutilized talents.
You can judge for yourself when "Hours" is available in limited theatrical runs and as VOD fare starting Dec. 13. In the meantime, here is some of what Paul Walker had to say about the movie – and his work in it – during our conversation.
How much responsibility did you feel toward the people of New Orleans – the people who had endured the devastation of Hurricane Katrina – while making Hours in their city?
Prior to getting to New Orleans, [Eric Heisserer] told me that our ace in the hole was the fact that a lot of the people on the crew, because we were filming in New Orleans, had a very personal connection to this. So we had built-in accountability – like, the accountability police. There had been some other Katrina projects that had come up. But this one, when they read it, the locals felt a real connection. And when I got there, I saw this consistently. Everybody was there because they really wanted to be there. They felt like they had a connection to the story.