Naomi Watts plays a traumatized mother caught in a hopeless situation in “The Desperate Hour”, an appropriately titled new thriller from director Phillip Noyce. Written by Christopher Sparling, the story takes a well-intentioned look at an extremely sensitive subject but ends up undermining itself with some painfully bad second-half choices.
“The Desperate Hour” is very much a tale of two very different halves. The first half is absolutely terrific, offering a riveting setup and leaning on Watts’ incredible talent to pull us in and connect us emotionally. I was completely absorbed and invested. But then the second half comes along and takes an ill-advised turn. You can see it happening, and I found myself saying out loud “Please, don’t go there!” But it does go there, all for the sake of the genre expectations, and both the movie and the subject matter suffer as a result.
Watts does practically all of the heavy lifting, and for much of the movie she’s the only person we actually see. She plays Amy Carr, a widowed mother of two still working through her grief. It has been one year since her husband Peter was killed in a car accident. Feeling especially down, Amy takes a personal day off from work. She gets her young daughter Emily (Sierra Maltby) on the bus, but her troubled teenage son Noah (Colton Gobbo) won’t get out of bed. Amy hasn’t been able to connect with her son since his father died. Discouraged, she leaves Noah in bed and goes out for a jog.
Other than the final ten minutes, the rest of the movie is spent alone with Amy and her iPhone. She jogs for what seems like ten miles deep into the beautiful forest outside of town. For a while there’s no solitude as she gets calls from her mom, her job, her best friend, etc. She puts her phone on Do Not Disturb for some needed quiet time, but just as she’s alone with her thoughts an alert comes across her screen. There is an active shooter situation at the school and the entire town is on lockdown.
Deep in the forest and with no vehicle, Amy frantically makes calls to anyone she can for help. A 911 dispatcher, an autobody repairman, her daughter’s elementary teacher, and a co-worker are among the many voices she connects with over the phone. But she can’t find a ride, she begins losing her GPS signal, Noah won’t answer her calls, and the cops aren’t sharing any information. It all works as a truly emotional and nerve-shredding setup.
But then the movie takes an ill-advised turn which leads to a series of bad creative choices that squash much of what the film had accomplished early on. Amy becomes a super-sleuth and the sheer number of conveniences needed to make the final act happen stretches the bounds of believability. But the biggest misstep is in how it uses the delicate subject of a school shooting as a plot device. I won’t spoil how, and to be fair that isn’t the movie’s intent. But by the end that’s exactly how it feels.
“The Desperate Hour” is one of the more frustrating movies I’ve seen over the last few years. For a while I was so intensely invested in the story and Watts’ performance really grabbed me. But then, as if falling in line with some kind of genre playbook, Sparling’s script veers off into some yucky territory. And the decision to explore grief through the tragedy of others doesn’t land well at all. Especially a tragedy that’s so real and devastating as a school shooting. Again, it should be said that Noyce and Sparling are going for something much different. But that doesn’t change how the movie ultimately feels. “The Desperate Hour” is out now in select theaters and on VOD.