“The Desperate Hour” is a fast-paced thriller that follows a single mother Amy in a “race” against time to reach her son, who is taken hostage at his school. The film begins with Amy Carr (Naomi Watts) has recently lost her husband. She has a daughter, Emily (Sierra Maltby), in elementary school, and a teenage son, Noah (Colton Gobbo). One morning, she makes up her mind to take the day off from work. She sends her daughter off to school. And after being unable to rouse her son from bed, who is clearly not in the mood for school, she decides to go on a run. She takes a long route and is 5 miles from her home when she receives an alert on her phone from the local police that says that due to an ongoing incident, all the town’s schools have been put on lockdown. Sometime later, she finds out that it is her son Noah’s school where shots have been fired, and a gunner has taken some students hostage. What follows is a tense and scared Amy making calls to find out Noah’s present state and trying to get to her son as fast as possible.
The thing with a film that is based almost completely on phone conversations is that the more the characters, the tougher it gets to analyze what’s happening. “The Desperate Hour” does sway in that direction during the first half. We are bombarded with calls from different people, one after another. There should be certain patience that will allow us to breathe in and register every bit of information provided to us via the conversations (watch Guilty on Netflix). This is what delves us into the story’s urgency. But the impulsive nature of the phone calls in the film, which are accompanied by restless camera movements to stress the tension, only makes the whole situation irksome.
The film does get over this in the second half, when the pace is steady. There is a give-and-take of information that is clear and takes the plot ahead seamlessly. The conversation among Amy, detective Ed Paulson, and 911 dispatcher Dedra Wilkinson carries a lot of weight. The ending is not unique, but the film is able to hold on to our attention, thanks to its run-time which kept the plot tight.
The urgency and the trauma of the shooting at the school are the two facets on which the film depends on. But it doesn’t deal with the event at all. Although the film offers necessary specifics about what’s going on at the school, we don’t know why it’s happening. It also delves into the thoughts of parents who are in a state of constant terror, knowing that their children are in danger and the fact that they cannot do anything about it. But the insanity that should have been there in the parents’ fear that their children could be shot to death at any moment is missing, which is the very premise of the film. So basically, the flaw in “The Desperate Hour” is that it has all the elements that make up its plot, but they are not in the right quantities.
What makes the film make its mark as a thrilling exercise in panic is the lead actress, Naomi Watts. She also makes us overlook the flaw that we mentioned before. The film makes use of Amy’s mental and physical state to stage the panic. And she nails it completely. The confusion, the desperation, the ability to show raw helplessness while being able to convey inner strength is intense. It is up to her to build the tension via her conversation with the off-screen callers (hats off to the sound design team), something she has done very convincingly. “The Desperate Hour” is basically one woman running in “desperation” for more than an hour, but the film feels so much more that it comes as a surprise, all thanks to Watt’s acting prowess.
As for the technicalities, the screenplay by Chris Sparling is tight, and thanks to Naomi Watts’ ability to hold the frame, “The Desperate Hour” works pretty well as a thriller. Music and sound design are very effective in maintaining a sense of urgency and panic. The cinematography does a pretty good job of portraying Amy’s distance (both physical and mental) by giving us a comprehensive view of the gorgeous vistas of the different terrains. The ruthless run-time is perfect and compliments the film’s genre. Overall, the film is a fine watch if one is willing to overlook the repetitive school-shooting theme.
Directed by Philip Noyce, “The Desperate Hour” is a 2022 thriller starring Naomi Watts.