There aren’t a lot of sure things in life, but finding entertainment in a movie where an impassioned protagonist works against the clock to execute a high-stakes task is one of them. We experienced this in Buried, as a flustered Ryan Reynolds tried to escape a coffin while his phone battery dwindled and his oxygen evaporated; in Run Lola Run, while our protagonist sprinted through Berlin in a 20-minute life-or-death bid for $100K; and in The Guilty, where we witnessed a 911 dispatcher attempt to save a kidnapped woman’s life over the phone.
Director Phillip Noyce’s The Desperate Hour dutifully adheres to this high-stakes, high-risk, task-oriented single-day format. The film follows selfless mama-bear Amy Carr (Naomi Watts) who is struggling to navigate her and her children’s grief on the precipice of the one-year anniversary of her husband’s death. Amy’s son Noah (Colton Gobbo) is particularly despondent, which is tough for Amy because all she wants is to have a good relationship with him again.
To meditate on her troublesome family situation, Amy goes on a long run through the woods. This turns out to be one of the worst decisions she’s ever made. By the time she learns that there is an active shooter at Noah’s high school, she is five miles from any trace of civilization. For the next hour, (the titular desperate hour!) Amy frantically tries to rescue her son from a potentially grisly fate. She does so almost exclusively on her cell phone, talking to friends at the scene of the crime, a Lyft driver, a friendly mechanic who may or may not be able to help her dox the shooter, and the police. To make things that much more stressful, she has to do all of this while running through the woods. (Yes, it’s exactly as exhausting to watch as it sounds.)
Of course, during Amy’s desperate hour, she runs (no pun intended) up against just about every obstacle you could imagine. She can’t reach Noah, her Lyft driver keeps getting stuck in traffic and it turns out that the police are investigating her son as a suspect. (Note: She never once loses cell reception despite being in the middle of the woods, but I’ll let that one slide.)
The Desperate Hour’s abundance of twists and turns ends up being both its strength and its weakness. From the moment Amy receives a screeching local lockdown alert on her phone to the film’s final, pulse-raising moments, The Desperate Hour bewitches the senses. Each nifty little plot development and roadblock are perfectly timed slaps in the face, re-ramping up the film’s momentum with every corner Amy whips around.
But in order to keep this momentum going, Noyce makes some sacrifices. Refusing to maintain a sense of realism is one of them. Indeed, a more truthful depiction of this desperate hour would likely be a much, much duller one: One where Amy gets right into her Lyft or just sprints for 30 minutes, too preoccupied with worry to even imagine picking up her phone. Instead, the story stretches itself to the very limits of credibility, the most egregious example perhaps being the moment where a detective recruits Amy to help solve the case.
And story isn’t the only thing that is sacrificed in The Desperate Hour. Noyce helps to bolster the whip-fast, pulse-racing tension by reducing his characters to single-minded, goal-oriented archetypes. Amy isn’t afforded any motivation beyond an unconditional commitment to her son: Even before his school is taken over by a shooter, she has a succession of phone calls about her children. Indeed, this helps in upping the stakes, but certainly doesn’t do anything to add depth to the characters or to the story—which is particularly disappointing because Watts is such a dynamic actor, as evinced by her ability to bring nuance even to this shallowly written role. Noah similarly falls into the lazy prototype of the moody teen, which services only a potential redemptive arc. This faulty character writing is particularly glaring because Amy and Noah are essentially the only ones in the film that are given a face.
The Desperate Hour, while consistently entertaining and confidently boasting a tight, no-frills script, fights too hard to explain that it does not exist purely by virtue of it being a fun kind of story to tell. Of course, in a world ravaged by school shootings, it’s pretty hard to make a movie that contains one unaccompanied by some sort of political message. Unsurprisingly, there is a scene in The Desperate Hour that decisively discloses its position on school shootings, but it feels wildly out of place. The Desperate Hour’s place in the world of high-stakes bottle-episode-esque action flicks is an uneasy one. Of course, we shouldn’t have to sacrifice entertainment for plausibility. Perhaps it is just directors, then, that need to be reminded that a film existing within an archetype doesn’t have to mean squeezing the life out of it.
Director: Phillip Noyce
Writers: Chris Sparling
Stars: Naomi Watts, Colton Gobbo, Sierra Maltby
Release Date: February 25, 2022
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.