Thirteen Lives Review: A Visually Accomplished Ticking-Clock Thriller With Nuanced Central Performances

On June 23, 2018, 12 boys, ages eleven to sixteen, walked into Tham Luang Nang Non cave in northern Thailand along with their 25-year-old coach. Unexpected heavy rainfall soon trapped the young explorers in a life-or-death situation that eventually spiraled into a massive international rescue effort as the growing real-life threat of rising waters propelled the dangerous crisis into the global spotlight. In "Thirteen Lives," director Ron Howard dramatizes the story and its myriad moving parts into a fine dramatic effort. It's a film that boasts well-developed tension, a smart focus on the local community, and understated but complex central performances. The thriller-focus and stoic real-world protagonists do create some emotional distance that may benefit from a little fine-tuning, but it's an impactful dramatic outing overall.

Ron Howard's distinguished directorial career has spanned multiple genres, but historical and biographical films like "Apollo 13" and "A Beautiful Mind" remain where he's found his greatest critical success. He returns once again to this terrain in a ticking-clock thriller that walks a delicate balance in following the real-world rescue divers who pivotally contributed to the boys' rescue and the Thai community that demanded the boys be saved and bent over backwards to make it so. Of course, Howard is no stranger to these sorts of historical films, with "Apollo 13" ably showcasing the director's ability to wring considerable tension from an all-points effort to practically solve real-world, harrowing crises. Here, however, we have a story that takes place in a panicked real-world community. Howard smartly continues to center the narrative on the parents, volunteers, and local decision-makers, in a choice that adds real emotional weight to the narrative. We spend ample time with the divers, but it never forgets to return to the people at the story's heart.

"Thirteen Lives" is a well-scripted and tightly edited film with a keen command of time, and DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (of "Call Me By Your Name" and 2018's "Suspiria" fame) lands both Thailand's expansive natural beauty and vibrant communities alongside the tight, dangerous claustrophobia of the treacherous cave system that the boys and the divers find themselves in. "Thirteen Lives" may at times feel a little distant in its performative aspects, an understated approach to narrative that occasionally separates the audience from the characters' subjectivity, but Mukdeeprom's top-notch underwater photography gives a somewhat compensatory feeling of being in their skin as the rescue is underway.

A harrowing rescue

"Thirteen Lives" begins intuitively enough with the boisterous boys and their coach happily trekking into the cave. It pivots to their families, and we get the crucial information that monsoon season has come shockingly early. The boys are in grave danger. The local community, the province governor, and Thai Navy SEALS join forces to attempt to extract the boys as the waters close off access and the local Navy SEALS can only go so far into the caves. Assistance comes in the form of accomplished rescue divers Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell), who take on the dangerous mission to map the caves and find the boys. The pair recruit more rescue divers, including anesthetist Richard Harris (Joel Edgerton) for a dangerous and never-before-attempted rescue deep in the heart of the cave.

The central performers here take on their roles in a highly nuanced fashion. In Mortensen's hands, Stanton is a distant but determined protagonist who becomes more attached as the difficulty rises ... it's subtle but impactful work. Farrell's Volanthen is a real highlight, however, as his own status as a father propels him towards more emotion and empathy for the boys' fraught parents. While Stanton is the risk-taker, the idea man, Volanthen is the divers' moral and emotional core, and the trials impact him the hardest. Farrell plays him with a strong, stoic emotional richness. Also worth noting here is Joel Edgerton's Harris, who first resists the radical steps he must take before taking the full moral weight of saving the boys on his own shoulders. Ron Howard's direction relies on subtlety as the cast portrays relatively stoic individuals (they're accomplished rescue divers, after all, which takes a heightened level of emotional control and professionalism). Interestingly, there are even moments where the emotional core of the protagonists' struggles and sacrifices are sometimes cut short to maintain this tone — a character finds out troubling news from home, for example, and in his reaction, he turns away before a quick cut takes us elsewhere. It's an interesting commitment on Howard's part that maintains a little emotional distance from and for the protagonists, who nonetheless display the depth of their characters. Still, one can't help but want to have a little deeper window into these characters' inner lives in some of these more pivotal moments.

While the rescue divers themselves are given variably stoic parts to play, the bulk of the emotional work comes both from the boys' parents and the self-sacrificing local community. The parents' believably distraught reactions and frenzied search for answers and solutions form much of the story's emotional work. It's a strong choice from the filmmaker to center the bulk of its weight on the community, forcing the film to decenter the visiting protagonists somewhat while it refuses to treat the besieged local community as unimportant to the film's events. At the same time, it would have been a welcome pivot to spend more time with both the boys and their frantic families. While we begin with the young football troupe, the film's focus as more of a ticking-clock thriller necessitates that we don't see the trapped thirteen much at all, except where they're interacting with rescuers. While "Thirteen Lives" is already on the longer side, it would have further ramped up the emotional stakes to allow us to get to know the boys more before the crisis and to follow their fear and harrowing survival within the caves more pointedly. While the film's centering on the community as a whole is successful, there are surely some opportunities for greater depth of emotion.

A technically accomplished visual showcase

"Thirteen Lives" boasts a number of virtues on the technical side of things that are worth highlighting. Mukdeeprom's cinematography centers the audience within the region's beauty and the community's lives in a way that grounds the narrative well. As the rescue divers proceed through the caves, the camera slides through the darkened waters of the caves' depths, capturing claustrophobic angles of the rescuers navigating the treacherous terrain. It lands the danger and complexity of the rescue operation in a visual, properly cinematic way that puts us in the actors' flippers. If one of the tried-and-true elements of proper cinematic storytelling is the much-stated commandment to "show, don't tell," it's clearly the ethos that Howard is going for in "Thirteen Lives," and Mukdeeprom's ability to ground the audience both in the community and in the rescuer's subjectivity excels here.

Additionally, with a strong script and James D. Wilcox's accomplished editing, Howard controls the time quite well. Each individual rescue takes considerable hours of swimming in dark terrain. Every minute was undoubtedly tense for real-life rescuers, but it's a delicate real-life balance for the narrative to both showcase the right moments of tension and yet avoid a feeling of overdrawn repetitiveness. The end result is a film that runs nearly 2 1/2 hours but which largely breezes by with few inessential moments. As a whole, it's a strong, tense narrative with successful visual storytelling.

"Thirteen Lives" is a film that truly orients itself around a grounded cinematic approach to story, one largely told without big, grandstanding emotional speeches but instead focused on visually capturing subjectivity, demonstrating tension, and highlighting the life-or-death weight of the characters' choices. It's an approach that succeeds overall, though a little more time with the boys, their frantic families, and a bit deeper window into the central characters' inner lives would have hit the story's tension and impact a little harder home. Nonetheless, it's a fine drama with adept performances that are sure to keep viewers on the edge of their seats.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10