The Desperate Hour review: A new kind of ticking-clock thriller

Setting Desperate Hour, a tense near-real-time thriller starring Naomi Watts, poses an awkward dilemma for the filmmakers. It is accessible mass entertainment with a premise related to a highly controversial issue: school shootings and, therefore, gun control. Should they tackle this issue directly and risk alienating a significant portion of the audience? Or should they slow down and hope that the sympathy for their characters and the drama inherent in a fairy tale can quietly change their minds?

The team behind Desperate Hour – Veteran Australian director Philip NoycePatriot Games) and screenwriter Chris Sparling (Buried) – take the second option. They cut the story down to the bare essentials until she’s just a mother, along with her phone and a growing sense of panic. Like last year Guiltyit is effectively a one-handed game, with Watts playing a series of voices in his headphones.

Amy Carr (Watts) is a grieving widow with an elementary school daughter and teenage son. She takes a personal day one morning, packs her daughter on the school bus, and tries to get her depressed son Noah out of bed. As she flees to a remote forest near their hometown, her phone goes offline: her daughter’s school, her friend hosting a mom’s party, the auto repair shop, her mother flying in that day. Even as she sets her phone to do not disturb, there is an angry buzz: an emergency alert from the local police department. Every parent is afraid of this call. An “ongoing incident” occurs, and the city’s schools are closed.

Much of the subsequent 81 minutes of small-scale action is dedicated to Amy’s mental and physical challenges as she answers the news and tries to get to school. The film reveals itself only at the very end, and even then barely. Watts is present in every second of the film. It’s a testament to the dense structure of the script and Watts’ incomparable ability to hold the frame that Desperate Hour works as a thriller. But it’s true: it’s a tense hour with a relentless pace. Noyce knows how to create intrigue within tight limits; before he cast Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan in spy blockbusters, he made a name for himself (and Nicole Kidman’s name) thanks to dead calma thrilling 1989 thriller featuring just three characters on the same boat.

Watts is great in the film. She handles despair and confusion admirably, and she knows how to show naked, raw fragility while revealing an iron inner strength that is almost intimidating. The film is completely dependent on these qualities. Working behind-the-scenes with callers and backed by solid sound design, Watts builds a situation so convincingly that it captures the audience’s imagination. It’s amazing to realize that most of the movie is just one woman running for an hour because it feels like so much more.

However, problems arise when Sparling’s script pushes Amy into a more significant role in a terrible drama set at the school. Amy does wildly irresponsible things that don’t make much sense and sets off events that do even less. This is too far in the name of dramatic expediency, destroying the faith that Watts has so carefully built into the character.

Desperate Hour depends on the traumatic resonance of school shootings to create urgency and fear, but the filmmakers seem unwilling to deal with the realities involved. The film is insightful about the specifics of what goes on at the school, at least within the scope of its plot, but is vague to the point of a caricature of Why it happens. Noyce and Sparling evoke the horror of parents when their children are in mortal danger and touches on the deeper and darker horror that these children’s lives are on some level unknowable, always out of reach. But they don’t quite realize the sheer madness of parents in a prosperous country in peacetime, fearing that their children might be shot at any moment – even though that’s the very premise of the movie.

Maybe it’s because they refuse to name the culprit. In the end credits, a sincere plea is heard that it is time to “get up” and that “this must stop.” But what is “it”? The word “guns” is never mentioned. It seems unforgivably evasive and not specific enough to convince those who need to hear this message. If Desperate Hour can change even one opinion by stealth, refusing to point fingers, then maybe it was the right choice. But it seems more likely that his lack of courage will leave prejudice unchallenged, and his call to action sounds hollow.

Desperate Hour debuts simultaneously in theaters and on digital platforms such as Apple and Amazon on 25 February.

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