Buried nearly as deep as the 12 students and their soccer coach were in the Thai cave back in 2018, the real-life rescue thriller Thirteen Lives gets an inauspicious debut with a token August theatrical release and otherwise straight-to-streaming dump. Not a good sign for a movie starring Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell and directed by a two-time Oscar winner.
Here’s the thing: Thirteen Lives is an impressively gripping and methodically told depiction of one of the greatest rescues in history. It’s easily one of the better movies of 2022.
Mortensen and Farrell play cave divers Rick Stanton and John Volanthem, who helped lead the effort to extract the thirteen individuals through several kilometers of flooded and claustrophobic tunnels. Both are fantastic, and while their understated performances aren’t the kind to elicit award attention, I was impressed by their British accents and immersion into their roles.
What may hold Thirteen Lives back from serious award attention is its greatest strength: there’s a serious lack of melodrama at play here. Each moment is treated no differently than the last; there isn’t a desire to play up the dramatic beats of this epic rescue. This is all the more surprising given that Ron Howard is behind a camera, who is best known for the likes of Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, and Cinderella Man–great movies, but not exactly ones known for their subtlety.
Thirteen Lives is a procedural, and a deeply detailed reenactment of the various attempts to keep those boys alive. Howard acknowledges that the real-life details don’t need further dramatization, and that much of his audience is likely well acquainted with the details, either from the live news coverage at the time or last year’s excellent documentary The Rescue. Instead of playing to emotion, Thirteen Lives tells its story with extreme confidence and dedication to detail.
Thirteen Lives is an engrossing film even if you know exactly what happens; its disinterest in exploring the humans involved to any significant depth may turn off some people, but to focus almost exclusively on the rescue details was the right move.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.