Reviews | Written by Rich Cross 16/01/2022


Disaster movies, even low-budget independent ones, tend to rely on a common, dependable template. The everyday lives of an ensemble of characters is sketched out for the audience. Most of them are revealed to be struggling with difficult relationships or personal frailties of some kind. Their individual and collective mettle is soon tested when calamity engulfs them all. Those that survive the carnage that follows emerge remade and repaired by the catharsis of disaster. Those that perish in the process either suffer a coward’s death or nobly sacrifice themselves so that others might live. In the meantime, the audience enjoys the vicarious pleasure of witnessing the catastrophe unfold, ideally at scale and with a breathless sense of spectacle.

Writer-director Lindsay Gossling approaches the drama of 13 Minutes keen to step away from this derivative approach. The title refers to the amount of time someone in tornado alley has to find secure shelter once the warning alarm sounds. For the first hour of the film, all attention is focused on the travails of a collection of families in small-town America, all wrestling with their secrets and problems, and all blissfully unaware of the deadly tornado hurtling towards the place they call home. Sadly, the attempt to pivot the drama on this crisscrossing network of human relationships disappoints.

That’s because this set of characters are essentially stereotypes: the alpha-male farmer facing foreclosure, his secretly gay son agonising about the idea of ‘coming out’, a young woman confronting an unexpected pregnancy - and many other very familiar archetypes. In what's a solid cast, Thora Birch stands out as a working mum with a big heart, along with Paz Vega as the brave and resourceful hotel worker Ana. Gossling tries to set these pressing personal issues in a wider context of religious conservatism, and within a social culture in which immigrant workers face discrimination and exploitation. That would work better if the film provided any cues about the time in which it's set: but it’s not clear if the film unfolds in the USA of Jimmy Carter or of Donald Trump, so there’s nothing to anchor these tensions to a fixed point in the timeline of modern America.

When the tornado finally hits, the film turns up the melodrama and makes great play of the kind of implausible coincidences that are the stock-in-trade of the mainstream disaster flick. A few moments of CGI aside, the budget is spent showing the aftermath of the cataclysm: a wasteland of flattened buildings and wrecked highways. That provides some visual impact, but it’s not going to be enough to impress the disaster movie aficionado.

What’s odd about the film’s finale is the lack of interest that it has in the themes of redemption or renewal. Most of the character drama is left unresolved, in whole or in part: almost no one emerges as a 'better person' as a result of their experiences. Perhaps that’s ultimately the film’s message: that in the face of the limitless power of nature, the petty affairs of human beings count for very little.

13 MINUTES (aka THIRTEEN MINUTES) is available from video-on-demand services. A DVD will be released on January 17th.