The Desperate Hour was directed by Phillip Noyce (The Giver, Rabbit-Proof Fence), written by Chris Sparling (The Atticus Institute, Down a Dark Hall), and stars Naomi Watts (Mulholland Drive, Boss Level), Colton Gobbo (Operation Christmas List, Son of a Critch), and Sierra Maltby (Jupiter’s Legacy). It follows a mother as she makes her way to her son’s school as fast as she can, as a shooting has occurred and the fate of her child is unknown.
The Plot: To say that the filmmakers had their hands on a sensitive topic is to understate said topic. Some have pulled it off, but their focus was on the drama and causation of the situation, not the bewilderment of the event itself. For that reason, there are only so many places this movie can go.
Single mother Amy (Watts) takes a sick day and sends her kids Noah (Gobbo) and Emily (Maltby) off to school before going for a morning jog. By the time she gets a decent distance out from anyone else, she’s badgered by calls from co-workers, her daughter’s school, and her mother. This is one of the few parts of the movie that feels authentic, having a host of people unknowingly upset a day meant for oneself. As Amy reaches the apex of her journey, she gets an alert that there’s an “ongoing incident” at Noah’s school, sending the maternal figure on a run towards it for much of the duration of The Desperate Hour.
Unless one considers Amy alternating between trying to hitch a ride via attempting to stop the occasional passerby, making calls to friends and associates, or using a rideshare app, there’s not much in the way of plot until the last 20 minutes. It seems at that point that Sparling realized that relying on such a threadbare sense of discovery paired with interminable scenes of running don’t necessarily equal a quality plot, as the movie switches to a more typical series of Amy interacting with cops and civilians around the school that feel too manufactured to fit the movie’s own narrative.
A movie like this needs a strong sense of realism, which quickly dissipates from The Desperate Hour, as does progression and taste.
The Characters: Given that this is a movie with a gimmick of sticking with one character for a vast majority of the runtime, the lead required as much depth and personality as possible. While Watts gives the role her all, everyone else feels less like people in a situation and more like tools to get the movie where it wants to go.
Amy isn’t much more than a tragic archetype; she’s grieving over the upcoming one-year anniversary of her husband’s death in a car accident, dreading having to talk to people for extended periods of time about the subject and trying to deal with the regular stressors of being a mother, though we never get to see or hear about the latter of these facets. Beyond her believable pleadings for the circumstances to not be what they are, there’s nothing more than surface-level emotion.
Her children, by virtue of the formula in use, don’t get much screentime. This decision only exacerbates the problem faced due to Amy’s one-note characterization, as an already borderline exploitation film becomes shameless in its manipulation of audience members. Sure, there are eventually calls to Emily, but they only come after an extended period without her mother being able to contact her, relegating the character to an afterthought.
Faceless and largely listless, the characters in The Desperate Hour are inarguable failures. Naomi Watts and her seemingly infinite acting talent hold the main character together, which is what counts but only just by the tips of her fingers.
The Thrills: Since The Desperate Hour is a Noyce film, it had to be a thriller. He’s always been capable of raising a pulse, even when the script is a swing and a miss. Those abilities haven’t been lost during his extensive career, but here, the excitement just feels wrong.
Panic is palpable for at least the first 30 minutes of The Desperate Hour, as Amy doesn’t waste any time using whatever energy she has left to run as far and as fast as possible to reach her children. As she makes her way back onto roads instead of woodsy pathways, she sees some police cruisers speed up and put their sirens on, not helping alleviate her worries. Phone calls have background cues like distant sirens and chatter that give a sense of a congested town full of fearful occupants, but this becomes a crutch for the movie, hardly changing things up without threatening to ditch any semblance of taste it has left.
Further down the road, The Desperate Hour meekly tries to hinder Amy’s rush to Noah and Emily by having her trip and fall, forcing her to limply jog and shuffle her way through the remainder of her time in the woods. It’s almost laughable in its frivolity, as it doesn’t stop her, but there’s no reason it would or should have. Tedium somehow sets in, with Amy’s various attempts at using her phone’s GPS and rideshare app coming off as key jingling to distract from the fact that she’s going nowhere fast.
No doubt in my mind exists that any halfway decent parent would stop at nothing to save their kids, but as the movie reaches its third act, it goes way overboard and tries to make a supermom in a thoroughly jaw-dropping way. Amy does better than the local police and the FBI (mulligan given here) at de-escalating the situation, with the resolution so ludicrous that it almost makes sitting through a largely dull movie worth it.
The Technics: Gloss isn’t necessary in a movie focusing on the raw terror of a mother in this kind of situation, but it’s here nonetheless. For as bad as the script is, the movie itself has some upsides surrounding the way it was made.
Noyce is trying just as hard as his star to make an injured woman’s solo run through the woods lively, utilizing plenty of drone shots to capture Amy’s isolation from anyone able to help her get to the school, and from her problems, which she’d been seeking to avoid. Seas of trees are beautiful and all, but a change of scenery before the 65-ish minute mark would’ve made the movie more visually appealing, if not narratively so.
The pacing is weak too. Locking the lead character out of the proceedings for such a long time doesn’t add to the tension of the moment, since there’s never even a play-by-play of what’s happening inside the building. Minor sleuthing scenes are supposed to act as bandages to this, but watching Amy try to get the auto parts guy to read a license plate number doesn’t suddenly make the sight of hobbled Amy any more entertaining.
In case it hasn’t been clear, The Desperate Hour is not a tasteful movie. It has Watts giving it her all, and the initial sense of panic could’ve led to something worthwhile, but it doesn’t; a stagnant script that takes a heel-turn for the comic is as far as the movie is willing to go.