The Desperate Hour is such a shrug of a film that it isn’t even worth considering the potentially offensive exploitation of its conceit.
With The Desperate Hour, formerly known at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival as Lakewood, we have the efforts of two reputable artists who turn in some of the emptiest work of their respective runs: Australian director Phillip Noyce, who gave us the diabolical thriller Dead Calm more than thirty years ago and went on to build his career on American action films like Clear and Present Danger, and actress Naomi Watts, who deserves better material to commit to as desperately as she does here.
Watts plays suburban mom and recent widow Amy Carr, negotiating both her own grief over the loss of her husband and the even more horrible aching of her teenage son Noah (Colton Gobbo). Amy’s apparently a big wheel at whatever company she works for, judging by the endless work calls she gets on a routine jog through the woods one morning. Her exercise is rather rudely interrupted, though, when she starts getting notifications that Noah’s school is in lockdown and that there’s some sort of active shooter situation happening.
What follows is a pretty basic DIY, single-location thriller (much like the Ryan Reynolds buried-alive movie Buried, not coincidentally from this film’s writer Chris Sparling). Amy desperately tries to make her way to the school without ground transport (she also twists her ankle on her run), all the while trying to figure out if Noah is at the school and potentially in danger. Mileages may vary as to whether or not it’s tasteless to make the ongoing epidemic of school shootings into a novel, tight little banger. If it is, then this film is a minor, pointless travesty. If you don’t really care about that, it’s still minor and pointless. Either way, there’s an extended and both deeply miscalculated and deeply unexplored thread about whether or not Noah himself is the assailant and what that would mean to Amy.
Watts is, as previously mentioned, totally committed. She’s made a career out of playing women wading through the deep, dangerous, swirling waters of regret and grief (cf. 21 Grams, Mulholland Drive, The Book of Henry, and on and on), but her faith in this material fails her. Obviously a COVID shoot, she’s left on her own, wailing into an iPhone while disembodied voices try to respond to her plight. Worse, Noyce strands her in a nondescript wooded landscape and films her in stunted shaky cam and close-up, because there’s nothing else to look at. Even at barely 85 minutes, this isn’t formally precise or narratively economical enough to get you past how offensively exploitative it might be, even while it simultaneously isn’t gnarly enough to be considered genuinely offensively exploitative. What’s left is only a big shrug.