Although he had been working throughout the 1970s and early '80s making socially conscious dramas in his native Australia, Philip Noyce first came to international attention with his riveting suspense-thriller Dead Calm (1989), which took place almost entirely on a small boat in the middle of the ocean. His ability to sustain intense audience interest with such a limited location got the attention of Hollywood, which was soon recruiting him to direct Tom Clancy techno-thrillers (1992's Patriot Games and 1994's Clear and Present Danger) and action films (1997's The Saint, 2010's Salt). In between he has directed numerous television movies and episodes, as well as some intriguing, more personal projects, including Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), a drama about a trio of Aboriginal children who escape an Australian re-education school and trek 1,200 miles to reunite with their families, and The Quiet American (2002), an adaptation of the Graham Greene novel starring Michael Caine.
As if coming full circle back to the point that first garnered him Hollywood attention, Noyce has now directed The Desperate Hour, which consists almost entirely of Naomi Watts on her phone. Just as Noyce wrung every bit of suspense possible from Nicole Kidman being trapped on a boat with Billy Zane in Dead Calm, he manages to sustain-just barely-an entire feature film with Watts running, texting, and talking. Of course, there is a major situation at hand: her teenage son is trapped inside of his high school with an active shooter, added on top of which is the implication that he likely is the shooter. The situation is greatly complicated by the fact that Watts's character, a recent widow named Amy Carr, has gone for a long run in the remote woods outside her neighborhood, thus putting her miles away from civilization, with only her cell phone service as a tether (and here we have a rare thriller in which a character's cell phone actually works). Thus, she is taxed physically, as she has to literally run for miles to get to a car to get to her son's school, an onerous task exacerbated by an untimely fall that hurts her ankle, and she is taxed emotionally, as she tries to connect with various people to find out what is going on. She repeatedly tries to call her son, and the fact that he doesn't answer has several possible explanations, all of which are awful: He might be dead, he might be in hiding, or he might be the one killing people.
As this synopsis suggests, much of The Desperate Hour's weight falls on Watts's shoulders, as she is literally the only person we see on screen for most of the film. We hear the voices of people on the other end of her phone, and we see brief snippets of FaceTime connections and get a few short flashbacks, but otherwise we are stranded in the woods with Watts's desperate mother as she battles physical distance and her own raging anxiety, fear, and grief. Watts has certainly worked this territory before, and she makes for a compelling subject with whom we can immediately identify and empathize. Already struggling at the beginning of the film with the anniversary of her husband's death and the strained relationship she now has with her son Noah (Colton Gobbo), she is already in a precarious emotional place before she finds out about the shooting. Watts embodies what, for many, is one of the worst parental nightmares imaginable, and she keeps us invested through every call, whether it be to friends, an auto shop worker who can see the school from his business, a 911 operator, the police, or, eventually, the shooter himself.
Screenwriter Chris Sparling apparently likes to create difficult situations for his stories, having first made his name with the script for Buried (2010), the majority of which takes place inside a coffin where Ryan Reynolds has been buried alive, which he followed with ATM (2012), where a trio of characters are trapped inside an ATM vestibule for much of the film. Although The Desperate Hour is physically set in the great wide open, it still creates a similar sense of claustrophobia via Amy's isolation (which is itself a bit of a contrivance, but not too bad of one). Noyce brings a steady hand to the film, eschewing anything overly flashy or self-conscious in his direction in favor of a steady escalation of dread. The film is blessedly short (I don't think they could have sustained it for five minutes longer), and while it doesn't break any new ground or shed any meaningful light on a scenario that is disturbingly common over the past few decades (to the point that some might understandably view it as exploitative), it does what Dead Calm did so well in holding our attention right to the end.
Copyright © 2022 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Roadside Attractions / Vertical Entertainment
Overall Rating: (3)
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