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The Desperate Hour Twists the Screws of an Exploited Premise

Image courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

We’ve met the kind of mother Naomi Watts portrays in The Desperate Hour from veteran director Philip Noyce. Naomi’s Amy Carr has a million things on her plate while she’s trying to get a morning trail run in a personal day from work out in the forest preserves surrounding her North Bay, Ontario home. A zillion little things ping and ding on her iPhone to interrupt her search for exercise and serenity. Amy’s youngest daughter Emily (Sierra Maltby) forgot something she needed for school, and her high school son Noah (Colton Gobbo) won’t get out of bed to go himself. Her job is reaching out for a quick needy favor. Her mother is calling in a meddlesome reminder. Casual friends are checking in to keep in touch. All of those interactions are hued with an “are you sure you’re OK” coat of pity because Amy lost her husband a year ago. 

A woman is jogging in the woods.
Image courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Because of that detriment and sorrow, Amy’s plate is made of rock, and she’s doing her level best to be present and reliable for everyone and in everything. She’s the personification of her own stock answer of “Don’t worry, sweetie. I’ll take care of it.” Despite Naomi’s age and blond locks, those traits do not make her a full-on “Karen” or a “pearl clutcher.” They simply make her strong and fittingly forthright without a helicopter or tiger stripes.

There are things that a mom can’t erase and The Desperate Hour explodes with one of those scenarios. A code red emergency alert screams to her phone that her children’s schools have been placed on lockdown due to an active shooter siege. She is miles out of town and without a car, virtually disconnected from help. All she has is her cell phone and its battery life as a conduit to the events transpiring and her jogging shoes to double-back to town. News like that, in our fragile times, is every parent’s worst nightmare and a hook that ignites instantaneously powerful emotional responses. Good luck staying calm.

A woman looks closely at her cell phone
Image courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

True to its title, The Desperate Hour unravels this harrowing situation in real-time for the hour and change that follows. We, like Amy, have virtually no direct view of the school, the perpetrators, or her children other than fleeting peeks through background noise and streaming feeds. Amy clings to any help she can get over the phone from 9-1-1 dispatchers to helpful strangers who are closer witnesses. When the audience is left to their imagination, much like Amy’s perspective, the imagined hell is always worse and this movie prods that mightily.

The Desperate Hour is a bottle movie where the main character is forced outside of the all-important vessel container of the plot. The film’s camera, steered by TV cinematographer John Brawley (The Great) entirely stays on Amy Carr, constricting tighter on her and shaking more violently with movement as the tension mounts and the unseen clock ticks. The musical score from fellow TV specialist Fil Eisler (Empire) follows suit with its growing dread.

A woman looks on from a barricade.
Image courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

The impatient powerlessness is as real as the massive uncertainty. The revelation Noah did in fact go to school and not sleep in at home makes it worse for Amy. However, Greenland and Buried writer Chris Sparling twists the screws even further when a police investigator contacts Amy with probing questions that present her troubled son as a possible suspect and not merely a hostage. Damn. Now put yourself in THAT situation instead of the first one. Things slow down and blur more. Reflective stock is taken. The worry level changes, and the chase is different. No “mommy eraser” works here.

Naomi Watts is no stranger to emotional and physical wringers, as evident from many of the high marks on her filmography. Matching the inner energy of the “your breath is all you need” meditation mantras that open the movie with Amy, Naomi throws herself into this setting to scratch and claw through The Desperate Hour with little more than her exasperated words. For the entirety of the movie, she is acting against a handheld device and testing her cardiovascular endurance with every take. A lesser actress would wail over-the-top emotional outbursts or endlessly chat in order to dump exposition. Watts impressively seizes these extended moments with shrewd reactions and dialogue.

A woman looks down on her cell phone screen.
Image courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Unfortunately, The Desperate Hour reaches a pivot point of plot development that goes too far with a precarious premise that is already uncomfortable and unfitting of manufactured drama. Sparling makes the decision to amp up the third act to where Amy Carr hits a Superwoman gear of incredulity. Pushed into an invisible corner, the lead character improbably becomes the movie’s lead detective, negotiator, FaceTime witness, terrorist bait, and social commentary sermonizer. In a way, she busts her way into the bottle movie when the more believable and appropriate route was supposed to keep her outside of the true fray.

By the time Philip Noyce (The Quiet American, Patriot Games) and The Desperate Hour leap that proverbial barricade, the optics of the movie weaken. Granted, the Amy Carr character is in an unfathomable position where she’s allowed to make some irrational choices in a live moment. Alas, the movie cannot afford to do the same playing with an all-too-real agony that preys on tragic headlines. Sure, this setup is an effective knockout punch and crime doesn’t have an address where school shootings can happen anywhere, but that fear can be wrongly exploited. 

Instead of empathy leading to absorb the full breadth of such a possible tragedy, the conjured thrills selfishly serve only one side of the story and plead a hollow case by the end. By staying on Amy and her radical involvement in the climax, the movie forgets to consider the unseen characters in the story that do not fare as well. The movie is laser-focused on this one mom and her one kid with very little respect extended to the fullness of the event or larger issue. Even with the objective of making a claustrophobic and voyeuristic movie, that larger picture cannot responsibly be dismissed for selfish or singular gain. 

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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