Eye For Film >> Movies >> On Fire (2023) Film Review
Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode
In November 2018, the seventh deadliest wildfire in US history ripped through California and destroyed the entire town of Paradise, along with numerous other homes. A combination of wind changes and unexpected behaviour on the part of the fire meant that evacuations happened only at the last minute and many people who had thought themselves safe abruptly faced danger. Given the location of this event, it embedded itself deep in the psyche of many in he state’s filmmaking community. Five years later, Peter Facinelli and Nick Lyon’s film attempts to capture something of the experience of those directly involved.
Facinelli plays Dave, a construction company owner who lives in a comfortable woodland trailer home with his father George (Lance Henriksen), teenage son Clay (Asher Angel) and wife Sarah (Fiona Dourif), who is eight months pregnant. George is experiencing mental decline and uses it as an excuse to bully Sarah, whom he seems to resent in part because she reminds him of his dead wife, whose pictures he looks at all the time. This means that there’s plenty of tension in the family before things go wrong, and we are never allowed to doubt that it will, even though the characters do.
Like this residents of the ill-fated Paradise, they know that there is wildfire in the area but are comforted by early assurances that it’s going in a different direction. Dave feels confident enough to leave his family alone whilst he goes to the nearby hardware store for supplies. Whilst he’s there, however, the situation changes. At officer at a roadblock tells him he is not allowed to return to his home. Sarah has to get the uncooperative George and increasingly panicky Clay out of the house by herself and attempt to escape the encroaching flames, but nothing goes to plan.
It’s not a complex story and the characters, though sympathetic, don’t have much depth. Henriksen is impressive as ever and does a lot with his limited screentime, but the others have less room for manoeuvre, their characters constantly forced to react to events rather than making meaningful choices, so that we don’t get much opportunity to get to know them. It doesn’t help that Sarah’s pregnancy plays out in precisely the way you’d expect for a disaster movie. That said, there’s still plenty to engage with, as the fire effects are handled well and it’s really this monstrous inferno which dominates the screen.
As the family members struggle to find each other again, try to follow advice about checkpoints and rescues and are repeatedly thwarted, the fire and the smoke continually pursue them, sometimes lurking just out of sight, sometimes seeming omnipresent as familiar surroundings become nightmarish in aspect. There are hints at institutional failings which echo the inquiries held after the Paradise fire. The hardware store owner tells Dave that evacuation is supposed to be done by zone and the roads won’t support everyone leaving at once. We meet other people who are trying to escape, and some for whom it is clearly too late. We also cut away, from time to time, to an emergency services call operator whose quiet struggle to keep doing her job in spite of the horrific things she’s hearing puts all the rest in context. Ashlei Foushee is excellent in this role and deserves serious notice.
By keeping the drama as small as it does, the film has more time to concentrate on the disaster itself, which is what most viewers will really be there for. It won’t tell you anything you don’t already know or show you anything you haven’t seen on the news, but it serves as a reminder of the human cost of each such conflagration and, in pointing out the international context – the increasing number of such fires all around the planet each year – emphasises that this is something which will happen again, and which we need to get better at dealing with.Reviewed on: 28 Sep 2023