CAST: Naomi Watts, Colton Gobbo, Sierra Maltby, Andrew Chown
RUNNING TIME: 84 mins
BASICALLY…: A mother (Watts) races against time to save her children from a grisly fate…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
Hopefully, you don’t need to be told that school shootings are dreadful events that nobody should ever have to endure, whether you’re a student or a parent or a teacher, or anyone that finds themselves caught up in the tragedy. As such, exploring them in various forms of media can be a pretty thin tightrope to walk across, so you’ve got to make sure that you know exactly what you’re doing, as well as what you specifically want to say, before even bringing them into the conversation.
The Desperate Hour, from director Phillip Noyce and producer/star Naomi Watts, has absolutely no idea what it wants to do or say. It is a film that, instead of approaching the topic in any kind of sensitive or even sensible fashion, uses it as a thin basis for a real-time thriller that’s light enough as it is on actual drama or stakes, so it reckons that by centring it around something topical it will immediately seem like it’s providing some kind of smart commentary. In fact, it’s deeply cynical and more than a little misguided, and both Noyce and Watts seriously need to think about what their film fails to do when discussing things that smarter people should know better than to exploit for thin entertainment.
The film takes place over the course of a single morning, as widowed mother Amy (Watts) sees off her school-bound kids, including mourning teenage son Noah (Colton Gobbo), and goes for a jog through the forest. However, during her run, Amy receives word that a shooting has broken out at Noah’s school, and most of the rest of the film is spent with Amy as she continuously checks her phone for any updates, phoning as many people as she can to ensure her son is safe from harm, and running at the fastest pace to the nearest highway in order to catch her rideshare into town (and before you ask, yes this is indeed one of those movies where the main character’s phone has the battery power of the gods, no matter how many apps she has open at once, with amazingly clear signal every single time she receives or makes a phone/video call).
It’s easy to identify the structure that this movie is aiming for, which is something like Locke or as recently as Netflix’s The Guilty where we’re with one person for almost the whole movie while everyone else literally phones it in. However, those films were at least able to keep the momentum going, driven by compelling plots and magnetic central performances, whereas The Desperate Hour often struggles to maintain a consistent interest in its own main character, who despite Watts’ on-screen efforts is painfully thin, and keeps emphasising the slow-building nature of this fictional school shooting, as if that was enough drama to fill one script session. Despite all the running, there is oddly no urgency to this plot, with even director Noyce struggling to find new and interesting ways to shoot Watts running in the woods whilst being constantly glued to her phone screen. Eventually, you can sense when the filmmakers just gave up with giving their plot a genuine hook or even any dramatic engagement, retconning the one interesting sub-plot roughly halfway through in favour of something far more generic and black-and-white.
Noyce, no stranger to high-intensity thrillers like Jack Ryan outings Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, is unfortunately directing from a script by Chris Sparling – who has written some genuinely compelling movies in the past like Buried with Ryan Reynolds and last year’s disaster movie Greenland – that is running on autopilot, lazily working a thin and easily contrived narrative around a very serious subject matter, with absolutely nothing to say about what really matters. As stated earlier, you have to be extremely careful when writing about stuff like school shootings, because it’s going to seem very exploitative if it turns out you have nothing substantial to offer, and sadly Sparling makes little effort to address any actual issues that stem from the reigning topic, instead leaving it as a trivial plot point in a bare-bones thriller.
It’s not that movies can’t ever be made about school shootings, as there have been a number of films made about them in the past, some good (Gus van Sant’s Elephant and Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin among them), and others erring more towards the exploitative side, like last year’s Run Hide Fight or the faith-based I’m Not Ashamed which focused on a Christian victim of the 1999 Columbine massacre. Although it perhaps has better intentions than something like Run Hide Fight, the cynical and paper-thin portrayal still leaves The Desperate Hour somehow feeling more exploitative, because it is clear as day that there’s nothing substantial being said about something that needs to be talked about a lot more in the world. That, more than anything, makes this film much more difficult to stomach.
SO, TO SUM UP…
The Desperate Hour is a paper-thin real-time thriller that fails to engage with either a compelling plot or interesting lead character, despite the efforts of director Phillip Noyce and star Naomi Watts, but it is the trivial and deeply cynical portrayal of the genuine tragedies of school shootings that make this an exceptionally misguided failure.