The underlying conceit of a thriller can make or break the quality of the overall film. When you’re trying to get an audience to buy into the level of suspense, it’s crucial that the contrivances be kept to a respectable minimum so that we can suspend disbelief. Last fall, director Phillip Noyce, who’s done everything from Jack Ryan adaptations (Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger) to classic television (Roots), debuted his latest heart-stopper, Lakewood, at the Toronto International Film Festival.
It didn’t go well. Most critics in attendance were not kind to the project, saying it failed in its social commentary as well as capturing the mood enough to properly engage the audience. Essentially, too much of the suspense seemed manufactured to be believable. Now of course, I didn’t get a chance to see it back then, so I can’t speak to what was screened. However, one would be forgiven for assuming that some major changes to the film went down after the fact, because when it was given its theatrical release last week, the movie was now entitled, The Desperate Hour. I don’t know if it was re-edited or re-shot (doubtful given the COVID restrictions in place during filming), but at minimum, the name change very likely gives it a bit of a boost, as it perfectly states the intended tone of the proceedings. This is a fast-paced bit of adrenaline, clocking in at 84 minutes, that is dead-focused on the panicked state of its lead in a situation that basically serves as every parent’s worst nightmare in the modern age.
So does it all work? On the whole, I think so. At least, the central concept is strong enough to keep viewers paying attention, and Naomi Watts gives a compelling performance to ensure we don’t get bored. There are a few too many coincidences and clichés that intrude on the story, to the point where the film comes dangerously close to being unintentional comedy. But all told, I can’t say I wasn’t along for the ride.
If you’re a fan of the TV series 24, you’ll probably enjoy the core element of this film, which is that the main events unfold in real time. Sandwiched between some introductory and closing scenes, the neo-titular hour of desperation is exactly that, a full hour where we don’t leave our star’s side.
Watts plays Amy, a mother of two and a widow, her husband having died in a car crash almost a year to the day before the film’s events. Her daughter Emily (Sierra Maltby) is a relatively happy and well-adjusted elementary school student, while teenage son Noah (Colton Gobbo) is morose and detached. As the film begins, Amy sees Emily off on the school bus but has to practically beg Noah to even get out of bed. He says he’s going to stay home, much to Amy’s chagrin, but as he’s taken his dad’s death especially hard, she grants him some leeway in hopes of reconnecting through his angst.
Once the kids are roused, Amy sets off on her morning jog through the nature trails surrounding her small town of Lakewood (hence the original title). And this is where the fun begins. After an absolute onslaught of calls, text messages, and video chats from various friends and family, Amy is already at her wit’s end. She has to pick up her parents’ car from the shop while they’re flying home from vacation, her daughter forgot an art project she wanted to have for show and tell, people are trying to plan a memorial service for the anniversary of her husband’s death, repairmen are supposed to come to the house. It’s all too much, and just for a bit of added stress, as she’s jogging, she sees several police and emergency vehicles driving by both in the distance and alongside her when she’s in the street.
Just when she thinks she’s handled all her business, enough to finish her run in peace, the emergency alert goes off on her phone, issuing a lockdown order. Through another series of calls, she finds out something is going on at her son’s high school. When Amy calls Noah to ask him to sit tight at home and wait for her, he doesn’t answer. Within minutes, the horrible pieces start to come together. There’s an active shooter situation at Noah’s school, and despite his earlier moaning, he ended up going. He could be in the middle of the most dangerous of modern scenarios for schoolchildren. And after some pointed questions from a 9–1–1 operator (MadTV’s Debra Wilson) and a police detective on the scene (Josh Bowman from Revenge), Amy is forced to consider an even more heartbreaking, terrifying possibility. What if her son is the shooter?
At this point it’s a race against time to get out of the woods (she didn’t drive herself to the running trails and even if she did, traffic is blocked off for miles around the town) and find out whatever she can in hopes of getting Noah out safe, whether he’s a potential victim or perpetrator. Through more calls and videos, Amy pieces things together, getting closer and closer to the truth, but also becoming so distraught at the trickle of information that she increasingly considers taking matters into her own hands.
The film is at its best when it keeps focused on these character moments for Amy, as Watts really does deliver the fear and confusion well. It’s also exciting from an audience perspective to try and figure out the bigger picture along with her as the mystery unfolds. The constant detours through nearly identical looking patches of woodland also serve as great visual representations of just how lost and rudderless any of us would feel in such a situation.
That said, there are so many moments that come off as just plain silly. For about half the runtime, I wondered if the film was a thinly-veiled commercial for Apple, as Amy’s iPhone performs so many tasks with different apps (with inconsistent activations and playback, mind you) that are just impossible in such a remote setting (she always gets perfect reception until the script requires her not to), capped off with one last obstacle in her quest which plays like a dickish joke. When she finally meets up with a Lyft driver (Paul Pape, aka “Double J” from Saturday Night Fever), her battery dips below 10%, but he only has an Android charger. Really? Are we seriously suggesting that this guy, who spent 40 minutes searching for her in this chaos to pick her up, is somehow on the wrong side of matters because he doesn’t accommodate Apple products? It’s a bit much, not to mention tone deaf, as children are violently exploited the world over to make smartphones.
Similarly, while I understand that anyone would be scared and stressed out if this worst case scenario were to come to pass, the amount of phone calls that don’t advance the story is staggering. Amy herself is as guilty as those she talks to, as friends, family, and emergency services all act in irrational ways and constantly hang up on one another before any meaningful information can be exchanged. I get it happening once or twice, but we get close to a dozen of these scenes, and at that point, it just feels like the screenwriter is intentionally trying to stymie plot progression for the sake of manufactured drama. Add in a couple of beats where Amy conveniently trips in the forest, causing her to limp as she runs, and you might as well have Jason Voorhees chasing her for as pointless as it can seem.
As for social commentary, honestly, I didn’t see all that much. Maybe this was a change from the Toronto screenings, because from what this final cut showed, the political posturing was minimal. The only direct statement on the gun issue comes during the credits, through a series of Instagram videos about how teens need to step up and demand more safety measures to keep firearms out of their schools. During the meat of the film, however, there’s just the fear showing on Naomi Watts’ face. Yes, it’s a fear that is realized far too often in this country, to the point where the nuclear fallout drills I had to do as a child during the Cold War have since been replaced with “Shelter in Place” exercises to prepare kids for an entirely preventable crisis. But it’s never mentioned explicitly. It’s left to the audience to derive any deeper meaning to this film’s plot. The shooting could happen anywhere — the school, the mall, Amy’s own house — and her reactions would be the same. The fact that it’s happening at a place where common sense gun laws could prevent it is incidental, and never once factors in to anyone’s actions or motives. If such commentary was in the version of the film that screened in Toronto, then yes, there’d be reason to critique and complain. But the finished product that just got released? You can always leave once the credits start rolling.
Without Naomi Watts giving such a fierce performance (and even then, there are flaws based on script contrivance), this movie would likely come off as self-parody. But as it stands, it’s more than passable. She leads the affair quite well, and as I said, the real-time pace of the proceedings is effective in keeping the viewer locked in. Still, it can’t be ignored when things get just a little too inconvenient to be believable. And despite the well-meaning moral of the story, let’s not forget the real lessons to be learned from this film.
Never go jogging, and don’t buy an iPhone.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you like the real-time concept? If a cop at an active crime scene told you to stand by for details, how many laws would you break to circumvent that request? Let me know!