Five months ago Noyce’s film played at the Toronto Film Festival as Lakewood. Now it’s got a catchier title. Here’s my 9.21 review with the title switched out:
An adult all alone and on a phone, having to talk his or her way out of (or through) a tough, high-pressure situation. I don’t know how many times this set-up has been built into a compelling feature, but I’m thinking at least four**.
The very best is Steven Knight‘s Locke (’14), an 85-minute character study about a construction foreman (Tom Hardy) grappling with issues of personal vs. professional responsibility. Three years ago Gustav Möller‘s The Guilty, a gripping, Danish-made crime thriller that I just re-watched yesterday, delivered similar cards. Last weekend a same-titled remake, directed by Antoine Fuqua and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, played at the Toronto Film Festival, and will debut theatrically on 9.24 before hitting Netflix.
Now there’s Phillip Noyce‘s The Desperate Hour, which stars Naomi Watts as Amy, a widowed, small-town mom reacting not only to news of a Parkland-esque high school shooting, but to the possibility that her sullen and estranged son Noah (Colton Gobbo) may be involved in some way.
Nearly two-thirds of this 84-minute film (47 minutes) are focused solely on Amy and her iPhone in a remote wooded area. We’re talking about a torrent of smooth steadicam footage plus several overhead drone shots and some elegant editing (kudos to Lee Haugen), plus Watts stressing, emoting and hyperventilating her head off — a one-woman tour de force.
Right away I was thinking Noah might be the shooter, and that, you bet, made me sit up and focus all the more. And that’s all I’m going to say.
My second reaction was about Amy’s iPhone, and what an amazing reach it has. She’s in a woodsy area a few miles from town (I didn’t catch how many reception bars were showing) and yet she experiences only a couple of signal drop-outs, and she’s watching all kinds of video and whatnot without a hitch.
I was also impressed by her iPhone’s battery — what power! (I never leave home without a back-up battery for my iPhone 12 Max Pro — I have too many active apps and the battery is always draining hand over fist.)
Despite all that’s going on at the high school and having to juggle all kinds of incoming info, Amy continues to jog during most of her phone marathon.
If there’s one thing that viewers will be dead certain of, it’s that Watts will stumble and suffer an ankle injury. I was telepathically begging her not to. HE to Watts: “C’mon, stop…don’t…there are all kinds of obstacles on your forest path and you obviously need to focus so just start speed-walking”…down she goes!
The pace of The Desperate Hour is very fast and cranked up, and Amy is nothing if not resourceful. She manages to persuade an auto mechanic whom she doesn’t know to supply crucial information about Noah’s whereabouts, as well as info about a possible shooter’s name and contact info. All kinds of conversations and complications ensue, and you’re always aware that Chris Sparling‘s script is determined to increase the stress and suspense factors.
Most of these efforts felt reasonable to me, or at least not overly challenging or irksome. The Desperate Hour is a thriller. I didn’t fight it. I accepted the rules and requirements.
I have to admit that around the halfway mark I began to flinch whenever Watts said the word “okay.” We all understand that a mother wanting to know about the safety of her son is naturally going to default to that word repeatedly, but at a certain point a kind of prickly resentment began to kick in.
But after a while I began to focus less on the unfolding trauma and more about what the film was actually saying.
For The Desperate Hour is really about the way so many of us process the human comedy/tragedy these days on a daily basis…the way everything is converted and boiled down into visual and aural data on on a small screen…a constant mega-stream of information that overwhelms the natural, organic unfolding. So in a sense Amy/Watts isn’t all that profoundly isolated by jogging through a wooded area because so much of life these days is routinely received and processed on hand-held screens. We’re all isolated. There ain’t no life nowhere.
The one thing in The Desperate Hour that I had an argument with is the delivery of some closing-credit thoughts from a certain character…a post-traumatic riff along the lines of “we can fix this and maybe make it better”…a little bit of constructive engagement. I’m sorry but it felt to me like a PSA message.
HE’s boiled-down, bottom-line reactions to The Desperate Hour — first-rate Watts, efficient Noyce, decent script by Sparling, nicely cut, fine secondary performance by Gobbo, and an admirably concise running time.
** I could’ve included Joel Schumacher and Larry Cohen‘s Phone Booth (’02) for a total of five, but star Colin Farrell is rarely alone in that film.
Deadline‘s Pete Hammond: “This is a corker of a thriller, and Noyce, who, among many other films, made one of my favorites in the genre earlier in his career with Nicole Kidman in Dead Calm, is a director who knows just how to navigate territory like this and make it pop. And Watts can ratchet up emotional distress without ever going over the top, and she is asked her to be constantly on edge.
“This is, like Jake Gyllenhaal in The Guilty, simply a tour de force of acting, and we are with her — terrified — all the way. Hitchcock knew how to do this stuff, and I think Noyce made this in the master’s spirit.”