Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 Toronto Film Festival when the film was titled “Lakewood.” Vertical Entertainment releases the film in theaters and on VOD and digital on Friday, February 25.
There’s been no better time to craft a single-person thriller, especially with the pandemic forcing creators to limit how many people are on set. It also posits a challenge: How does someone maintain suspense with one person for a feature-length amount of time? This question has been answered with features like “Locke” or the Ryan Reynolds-starring “Buried,” another solo thriller written by “The Desperate Hour” screenwriter Chris Sparling.
The elements to make something good are there. Sparling worked with material like this before — much of his filmography is focused on high-concept thrillers with a limited cast. Naomi Watts is usually able to deliver a quality performance. And director Phillip Noyce perfected material like this in the ’90s with “Dead Calm.” Unfortunately, no one is at their peak in this maudlin, truly terrible thriller that relies far too heavily on manipulation and narrative revision to deliver a “message” that we don’t need to be spelled out for us.
We meet Amy Carr (Watts) as she’s waking up her teenage son, Noah (Colton Gobbo). The family’s been through it in the last year, losing the family patriarch in a car accident. It’s made Noah pull away from his family, barricading himself in his room. Doesn’t seem weird at all. Amy decides to go for a jog, only to hear that a school shooting is taking place at Noah’s high school. With no one willing to pick her up and an Uber trying to figure out where to pick up Amy in this Applachianesque forest, the desperate mother will have to do something to get at the truth of what’s going on.
Where to start with “The Desperate Hour,” a thriller that truly believes it’s making a Grand Statement on school shootings? Let’s start with the concept: Amy is on a a run when she learns about what’s happening at the school. One doesn’t often complain about the A to B progression of how characters get places. You don’t have to see an actor drive to their location to know that’s how they got there. Here, you need to know, because once Amy discovers she needs to get back to civilization, there isn’t a car for miles — leading to the question of how the hell she got there in the first place.
Interestingly, Sparling also wrote the script for Gus Van Sant’s critically excoriated 2015 feature “Sea of Trees,” set in Aokigahara, otherwise referred to as the Japanese suicide forest. Sparling appears to enjoy forests as metaphors for isolation and confinement, as we’re given many scenes of Watts aimlessly running through trees like a nightmare. The metaphor isn’t exactly complex.
The rest of the film follows Amy making phone calls and running. So much running. It becomes unintentionally hilarious to watch Amy try to run miles upon miles, but Sparling’s script sees mothers as that special breed who can run marathons with no water or lift cars in the air. All that magic and yet Amy can’t get an Uber for over an hour and absolutely none of her friends are willing to come get her.
These gaps in logic become increasingly ridiculous and, because there’s nothing else to watch but Amy, the audience has nothing to do but ask questions. Amy calls numerous people, including strangers, yet only asks a few people to come get her. Never does she request 911 or the guy who runs the auto body shop to meet her somewhere.
Watts tries hard, but it’s hard to do much acting while perpetually out of breath. The script gives us little to anchor Amy as a character. She’s a mom who, until the death of her husband, was living in an Eden-filtered world of sunshine and rainbows (according to the flashbacks). She works for the State Taxation board and if you’re wondering why that’s significant, it becomes the linchpin for the third act.
A red herring in regard to Noah is placed at the top of the movie and instead of spending time with that revelation or, better yet, leaving things ambiguous, the movie gives us so much information on the shooter as to be laughably transparent. One of the dumbest scenes involves Watts calling the shooter on the phone! I’ll just leave that there.
Because Amy is all we meet, everyone gravitates to her with all the power of a Chosen One narrative. Detectives talk to her like she’s one of them; a kindhearted 911 operator practically gives Amy her private line. Amy’s son is all that matters and, by the end, you kinda worry whether Amy’s a terrible person considering she doesn’t appear to give a crap about anyone else’s kid.
But wait: This movie is actually about everyone’s kids, as the film’s end credits present Noah giving a speech about the horrors of school shootings. Like “The Desperate Hour,” he wants to say “school shootings are bad.” That’s true, but it’s not so much a testimony as it is a way to make this 77-minute film as close to feature-length as possible.
“The Desperate Hour” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.