Touching the Void

In 1985, avid mountaineers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates traveled to the far reaches of Peru, hoping to climb the dangerous and unconquered peak known as Siula Grande. Relying on determination and the joy of climbing, the two quickly found themselves in deep trouble with the elements. This lead to a situation where Joe broke his leg, slipped off the mountain, with Simon’s loose grip on the tether between them the only connection to safety. Unable to communicate, Simon was confronted with the possibility that his friend might be dead, and after deep consideration, he cut the rope that linked them, sending Joe down into the dark pits of an ice crevice. “Touching the Void” details the true story of how Joe began a long journey of the mind and body, and found his way down the mountain, cheating death frequently, hoping to find his friend and safety again.

Based on Joe Simpson’s best-selling book “Touching the Void: The True Story of One Man’s Miraculous Survival,” the film endeavors to bring to life this amazing tale of survival and endurance. Through exhaustive dramatic recreation and on-screen interviews with the two men, noted documentary filmmaker Kevin Macdonald (“One Day in September”) aims to take viewers into the heart of this amazing mountaineering incident, and to confront survival in its most pure form. Does he succeedr In a very direct way, yes. “Void” is a gripping story, utilizing the opportunities for claustrophobia and dread in all those delectable cinematic ways. This is a unique film, as two separate viewpoints on the story are presented, sometimes unintentionally contradicting each other, but it does justice to the astounding true event.

Macdonald takes substantial time and patience in building up the drama through his recreations (performed by Nicholas Aaron and Brendan Mackey), making the inevitable tragic situation hit all the right emotional buttons upon arrival. In the climbing world, there were angry fingers pointed at Simon for his actions, but Macdonald keeps the film somewhere in the middle, letting the audience decide if there is fault to be found in Simon’s critical decision. Once Joe is dispatched into the deep abyss of ice and snow, “Void” works the nightmare nerve thoroughly, with Macdonald depicting a peaceful, angelic hell that appears at first to have no exits. Joe’s struggles in this section of the picture are the stuff of great filmmaking and smack-yourself-in-the-head true life adventure.

Where I was less convinced with “Void” is Joe’s long road back to base camp, which was littered with hallucinations, relentless pain, and brutal dehydration. Where Macdonald seemed so confident in the opening act of the picture building suspense with time and careful camera placement, he lets go in the middle act with silly, almost embarrassing handheld-photographed simulations of Joe’s mental state. Joe was plagued with mental instability all the way down the mountain, and Macdonald rarely passes on an opportunity to dramatize it, even though the audience understands right away how tall the chips are stacked against the crippled climber. It gets to be redundant and unnecessary quickly.

I’m also not thrilled with the epilogue to the story. The film uses three cards of information to sum up the event and its fallout on the climbing community, and that is it. Are Joe and Simon still friendsr Can Joe walk normally these daysr Do they mind relieving the hellish event over and over againr And how did Simon manage to get Joe to help when he was finally discoveredr Unanswered, and frustratingly so.

“Touching the Void” is a good pseudo-documentary, but the nagging questions could’ve easily replaced the wasteful screen time given to hammering home the obvious situation: that these climbers found themselves in quite a bind, with only instinct keeping them alive and moving.

Rating: B-
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