Touching the Void is based on the best-selling memoir by Joe Simpson. Simpson and his partner Peter Yates were a couple of thrill-seeking mountain climbers who decided to scale the as-yet-unconquered Siula Grande mountain in Peru back in 1985. The tragedy of errors that befell Simpson and Yates has become the stuff of mountaineering legend. Scottish documentarian Kevin Macdonald (A Brief History of Errol Morris, One Day in September) has chosen an interesting method for telling their story on screen. Simpson and Yates are allowed to narrate their entire harrowing tale in a simple talking-head interview/voiceover style. The events of 19 years ago are then recreated using a couple of actors. At first, it's a bit awkward. It's unclear whether or not we're viewing actual footage from Simpson and Yates' ill-fated expedition. We aren't.
After a while, the true nature of the re-enactment becomes clear. There is no actual dialogue, and the actors (often caked in layers of snow) aren't called upon to act so much as play out the situations as described by Simpson and Yates. Still, the re-enactment segments are frighteningly real, shot in more or less the exact locations that the climbers traversed. We see in excruciating detail the missteps that Simpson and Yates made and the horrors that befell them (broken legs, snow storms, whiteouts, collapsing ice shelves and more). Since Simpson and Yates are narrating their own story, viewers can reasonably assume that both survived the weeklong ordeal. Still, it's hard to imagine that's the true outcome based on what we're seeing unfold on screen.
The pair come across as a couple of fearless bumblers unclear on the dangers they're about to step into. For starters, they've never hiked in the Andes Mountains before and seem baffled by the unique “meringue-like” snow conditions on the mountain. (Danger sign number one.) The men go on to describe their “Alpine” style of hiking in which two men are tethered together. If one man falls off the mountain, they both die. (Danger sign number two.) Then there's that little problem with rescue teams should anything go wrong: There aren't any. (Danger! Danger! Danger!) By the time the two men find themselves 20,000 feet up a mountainside and seemingly unconcerned with the fact that their propane supply has just run out, viewers will be forgiven for screaming, “You freakin' idiots! I told you not to go in the basement! … I mean, up the mountain!”
Touching the Void plays out like a slow-building environmental horror story. From the very start, I had a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach that just got worse as time went on. Touching the Void is a hard film to watch. The agony these two climbers endured is almost beyond comprehension. The film does take us on a fascinating journey, however. It's not some inspirational survival tale, nor some sappy story of heroism, nor a metaphorical story pitting man against nature. The film is, instead, about the simple, dumb tenacity of human life. It can continue, apparently, long after mind, body and spirit have given up the ghost.
The climactic image of Simpson badly wounded, completely dehydrated, starving, delirious, plagued by a stupid pop song that won't leave his head and wallowing in a dung pit (don't ask) is a telling one indeed. Death is rarely noble. Sometimes it's just plain cruel. And occasionally it's so damn capricious it's funny. Authentic, gut wrenching and cathartic in the way any well-told horror story is, Touching the Void is a gripping yarn for armchair adventurers who want their fears confirmed. In spite of everything, Simpson is still a mountain climber. Me? I'm never going near that anthill in my backyard again.