‘The Desperate Hour’ Review: An Exercise in Panic
If your 84-minute movie about family trauma turns into a school-shooting thriller but that thriller is also about the family’s mother having the worst jog of her life and that jog includes dozens of phone calls to and from 9-1-1, it doesn’t need a director. It needs a life coach and a personal trainer. The audience, meanwhile, needs a hostage negotiator. That mom? She basically becomes one, too. And because Naomi Watts plays her, it seemed fair to assume that Amy’s helplessness would achieve more than this single note. But nope.
Not much time is required to explain what’s happening here. A recently widowed mother of two named Amy (Watts) leaves her teenage son languishing in bed while she gets some morning exercise in the nearby woods of a generic mid-Atlantic town. While she’s out, Amy discovers that someone heavily armed has invaded her son’s school and opened fire. Is he a victim? Is he the shooter?
For answers, Amy races toward danger on the ankle she twists, making frantic calls the whole way: to the mechanic not far from the siege, to a friend with a kid at the school, to a Black police dispatcher (repeatedly) named Dedra, who, in the middle of all the chaos, makes time to comfort Amy with lines like, “You did what any other mom would do.”
The only thing I want less than a thriller about a school shooting is a thriller whose other main character is the main character’s iPhone. Watts has to conjure anguish from dropped calls and dying batteries, from deceitful ride-share arrival times and unknown callers, from calls that go straight to voice mail. She has to find a way to play the sort of person who’s already taken and made half a dozen mid-run calls before there’s any crisis, someone whom we don’t mind saying something like, “Siri: Directions to Lakewood Community Center. Fastest route” or “You got other people’s kids out. Why can’t you get mine out?”
Few screen actors are better at externalizing parental anguish than Watts. The physical beating she took in “The Impossible” felt proportional to her performance of a mother’s determination to reconvene her family. The movie turned the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 into an action-melodrama, but Watts’s mastery of bodily suffering transcended the film’s racial turpitude. Her privileged mommy persuasively stood in for maternity itself.
“The Desperate Hour” becomes its own kind of impossible. There’s no way for Watts to make this person more than the most exasperating character I’ve experienced in a work of fiction in a long time. Until Amy, I couldn’t truly have appreciated the difference between courage and effrontery. She guilts that mechanic into some probably illegal sleuthing. And when she makes her urgent limp to the scene holding two phones, it was my turn to call the cops. Amy, come on. That’s your Lyft driver’s phone!
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Watts is working with the director Phillip Noyce, a veteran of superb intimate suspense films (“Dead Calm”) and expensive Hollywood pop (“Patriot Games,” “Sliver”). Nothing’s working for them here. The camera does a lot of shaking, but it can’t find a single jolting image. The boop-boop and tings of a smartphone might be the sounds of the state-of-the-art communication but, boy, are they a major artisanal downgrade for a filmmaker who could generate shivers from creaking wood on a boat.
The source of all the movie’s troubles is Chris Sparling’s script, which relegates everybody besides Amy to offscreen voices and FaceTimes, in order to intensify her stress and isolation. But these are gimmicks that result in a ginned-up ghastliness that equates the crisis of endangered kids with the nightmare of a dying phone battery.
The Desperate Hour
Rated PG-13. (School-shooting stress.) Running time: 1 hour 24 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy on Apple TV, Google Play and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators.