"Touching the Void" is one of the most horrifying, compelling films I've seen in quite some time. The fact that this is a true story, that we know how everything turned out (the participants are interviewed, so we know they made it) and that this is all a dramatization of the events makes the film's power all the more remarkable.
The story involves Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, two 20-something British climbers who were experienced climbers, always looking for a new challenge. Mostly, things went well and the two conquered their quests up various mountains. Sometimes, things wen't wrong. Neither were prepared for how wrong a trip up the previously unscaled western face of Siula Grande, a 21,000 ft. peak in the Peruvian Andes, would go.
We are told that the two attempted a certain style of climbing that had a base camp at the bottom, but no camps along the way - simply one large push towards the top, carrying all their gear and limited supplies with them. The climb up the mountain was fairly uneventful, even going better than the two expected. The trip down, however, was another story.
Snowstorms tore into the climbers, disorienting them and ripping at them with brutal windchills that seem almost too harsh to be withstood by human beings. On one push down the mountain, Simpson took a terrible fall, badly breaking his leg. We're told, in details that will make most viewers cringe, exactly how the bones broke.
Given the way that they climbed and that there was really no one or no way they could seek help, both knew that Simpson was in severe trouble. Yates, however, was not going to go without at least trying to help his friend down. The two rig a system and are able to go down a stretch at a time for a while. Then things got worse, as Simpson found himself lowered down towards a stretch of mountain at night that suddenly got very steep very quickly, finding himself hanging in the middle of thin air, too far from the side of the mountain, way too far from the ground below and unable to climb up. Simpson couldn't call to his friend, who was out of hearing range in the blizzard conditions. Meanwhile, Yates found himself losing his position in the snow, sliding at an uncomfortable rate towards the edge.
I'll end it there, as while we know that Simpson survived, his journey from this point forward - which, no surprise, only gets worse - is no less fascinating and amazing. As previously noted, "Touching the Void" is a recreation of the events, which happened in 1985 and have become something of legend within the climbing community. Simpson and Yates are on-hand, their interview footage nicely edited into many points within the film. Actors Brendan Mackey and Nicholas Aaron star as the two climbers in the recreation footage, but director Kevin McDonald ("One Day in September") is mostly able to obscure their faces w/blinding snow or other methods to keep the illusion, even though the audience is already aware that this is a recreation of the events. The scenes have been filmed in the Alps, which obviously helps to make for an even more convincing feel to the recreated events.
I liked the way that "Touching the Void" presented the tale. There's no sentimentality here, no Big Emotional Score. Over the course of nearly two hours, the audience is lead through the brutal and astonishing journey that Simpson made to try and survive. Through a mixture of expertly filmed recreation and Simpson's straightforward, honest and emotional recollections, we are given a sense of the hopeless, struggle and pain that he endured.
Overall, I thought this was an amazing film that strongly portrayed this true story of one man's determined journey to free himself from a tragic situation. Certainly, this is the best film of 2004 that I've seen yet.