It took me a while to tackle Thirst, a survival movie in the same vein as Open Water or 127 Hours, because I felt that I really had to be in the right mood for it. The idea is similar to what on television is referred to as a “bottle episode”; that is, the main characters of the story are brought together in one location (the desert, natch) and then the story plays out primarily between the characters with a minimum of external influence. It can definitely be hard to stomach the concept if there’s not something extraordinary to sell it. Why would I want to see a bunch of actors in a low-budget direct-to-DVD movie argue with one another for an hour and a half? Well, wouldn’t it be more exciting if they’re all dying slowly of exposure and dehydration?
That premise only takes the movie so far. Part of the reason for that is that it’s not really driven home in the way that one might hope. When two couples venture out into the vast wilderness and get stranded, the heat and lack of fluids quickly takes hold of them. As the viewer, I never really felt the urgency despite the characters’ repeated claims of extreme thirst. As the sole review on RottenTomatoes rightly points out, “The various actors are unable to convincingly portray their respective characters’ extreme thirst, with the viewer’s inability to wholeheartedly accept the peril of their situation resulting in a lamentable absence of pervasive dread.” But then, how do you, as an actor, portray “thirst”? Can you imagine being assigned that task? A lot of the work is done through make-up: actor Tygh Runyan (yep) is caked by the end of the film so as to be ghostly pale – that’s certainly effective. Beyond that, there are the extreme measures the group is led to take, as they begin to realize that bodily fluids are, after all, fluids. Their eagerness to partake in what beverages are available certainly signifies their thirst, but does it evoke it?
excellent best television program on the air today, Community, one of the characters breaks the fourth-wall to mention his disdain for bottle episodes, explaining that he’s turned off by them because “They’re wall-to-wall facial expressions and emotional nuance.” With that said, Thirst is a much more compelling feature when it manages to hew closely to its central plot, which should not be about a group of friends who are stranded in the desert, but instead about a group of friends who are stranded together in the desert. My favorite scenes were the ones that exposed the relationship struggles that husband and wife Noelle and Bryan were facing, even before tragedy struck them in the form of almost-certain death. Their arguments and apologies and genuine care for one another’s safety provided the emotional center that I think held the entire movie together – their story comes together in a climax that is spectacularly poignant despite the film’s failings otherwise.
Similarly, scenes early on featuring Noelle and the injured Athelia were particularly moving. Why? Because these moments aren’t about the girls addressing the girl’s injury in a clinical manner – instead, these scenes exhibit the two being there for one another, one calming the other in a time of crisis, holding hands tightly, and letting themselves be totally honest. Those few scenes are amazing, they’re the only ones that actually allow the viewer to get close to the characters, to see them as anything more than numbers to be ticked off one by one. There’s a particularly negative review of the film on IMDb which contends that viewers will “know who will live or die in the first five minutes of the film with its cookie cutter personalities.” I don’t know if that is entirely true, but the temptation to make those judgments, of which characters are likely to survive their ordeal and which are liable to succumb to the heat, is much too easy to accept.
I don’t mean to say that those human connections are the only exciting things about the movie. There’s an impromptu medical procedure which doctor-in-training Noelle is forced to perform early on that is gut-wrenching to view. The presence of wolves each night makes the campfire scenes particularly chilling, too, as low growls echo off screen and yet there is little that the characters can do but hope that the sounds remain off-screen.
Unfortunately, I find myself remembering too easily the things that irked me. Until the characters arrive in the desert, the movie is overflowing with references to beverages and water and drinking and taking fluids for granted. The group all hang out in a swimming pool for I think an entire day, and one character casually dismisses water as being for dogs and lawns. Oh, but Fate will have its revenge! Or, rather, a lazy screenwriter I suppose. You know, the kind of script writing that thinks that all of these references are clever or subtle. And then, as the danger gets progressively worse, the characters’ arguments and decisions become more and more absurd. They only travel when the sun is at its highest in the sky, explaining in a throwaway line why they don’t travel at night (“It’s too dark”). One member of the group intentionally consumes poison, explaining that “somebody has to be the guinea pig”. What? The foursome guzzle down all of their remaining water almost immediately after getting stranded, the only justification for this being, well, we ought to drink it all now, oughtn’t we?
And god, worst of all is the obnoxious, repetitive score. I’d like to think that I’d be as turned off by it if I hadn’t had the subtitles on, but being presented with the phrase [dramatic instrumental guitar] twenty times only helped to highlight that the movie only had one clip of a sad Spanish guitar to serve as its entire soundtrack.
There are some fantastic things about the movie, no doubt, and at least one scene that will remain in my memory for some time – that alone is a reason to speak positively about it. A lot of the film’s success depends on developing a good chemistry between the actors, though, and that reality only comes in flashes. The movie gets it right sometimes, but too often seems to be trekking toward nothing much. The final moments of the movie aren’t cathartic or symbolic or joyous. They’re just… what has to happen next.