A film review by Craig J. Koban May 9, 2022


2022, PG-13, 84 mins.

Naomi Watts as Amy Carr  /  Colton Gobbo as Noah Carr  /  Sierra Maltby as Emily

Directed by Phillip Noyce  /  Written by Chris Sparling

Phillip Noyce's THE DESPERATE HOUR is one of those minimalist, one setting kind of thrillers that concerns a mother that shockingly discovers that her son's high school is being targeted by a crazy lone gunman.  She then spends the rest of the film - via phone calls, texts message exchanges, and zoom calls - trying to find out whether or not her son is still alive or among one of the many victims.  

The Australian born Noyce hardly needs any introduction to the thriller genre, having helmed tentpole blockbuster franchises like Jack Ryan (PATRIOT GAMES and CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER) to the aquatic themed scarefest that was DEAD CALM (which introduced the world to a then unknown Nicole Kidman).  In many respects, THE DESPERATE HOUR is much more low key, scaled down, and insular in focus than just about anything else on the veteran filmmaker's resume, and its core concept is definitely intriguing enough (this film represents every mother's worst nightmare scenario played out in real time), but I'm not entirely sold on Noyce's handling of timely world themed events like mass school shootings, which more or less is used here as a plot device to hang the rest of the story on.  That, and the film devolves into logic defying chaos in its back end, which unfortunately capsizes everything beyond repair. 

THE DESPERATE HOUR begins modestly enough by introducing us to Amy Carr (a rock solid Naomi Watts), a mother of two that decides to go out for a very routine morning jog in her town's nearby forest.  She does this mostly as a form of stress releases, seeing as the recent death of her husband in a car accident has still left her with emotional scars.  She's doing her absolute best, though, to tend to her children's well being as much as possible, with her youngest in daughter Emily (Sierra Maltby) and older son Noah (Colton Gobbo) also attempting to get back to a place of normalcy, with the latter arguably having more difficulty than the rest.  Just before she leaves her home for her run she stops by Noah's bedroom to ensure that he's out of bed and getting ready for school, but with the anniversary of his dad's death mounting he doesn't seem too keen to go to school or even leave the house.  Amy decides to venture outside anyway and find some solace in the natural environments that await her. 

She goes deep (like, really deep) into the woods to seclude herself as much as she can from the outside world, but she still keeps her smart phone with her.  Annoyance begins to kick in when she begins to receive many phone calls from various friends and family, including her mother.  She dismisses most of them and tries to carry on with her workout, but then she receives notice of a violent incident at her kids' school, and with only a scant number of details floating in she goes into panic mode rather quickly.  Amy doesn't become hysterical, however, and she soon takes it upon herself to pull information in from as many online sources as possible to discover what's actually happening, but what plagues her are thoughts that her son and daughter's lives have been taken.  Adding to her tension filled morning is that (a) she's about an hour out of town and (b) calling just about any ride share is getting increasingly difficult with phone lines being jammed because of the school shootings.  She then manages to physically injure one of her feet during her run, which is the last thing she needs to happen at this point.  When she makes contact with local police they begin to ask her some alarmingly specific questions about Noahn, leading her to deal with an added layer of anguish.  Is her son alive and well or has he been killed by the active shooter or (heaven help her) is her son the shooter? 



Again, all of this is pretty compelling material, and the basic premise here of a vulnerable and injured mother being relatively far away from civilization - and without a quick way back to it - trying to process a senseless school tragedy (and deduce whether her son is a victim or the perpetrator) is deeply unsettling stuff, to be sure.  Most of THE DESPERATE HOUR hones in exclusively on Amy and her the physical and psychological gambit that she's thrust into.  Noyce's film reminded me a lot of suspense laden/nightmare fuel scenario films like BURIED and, more recently, last year's THE GUILTY, with all of these films being one-actor showcase reels that revolve around single characters using phone technology to get a hold on their dire situations and find exit routes.  To his credit, Noyce has most assuredly found the right actress in Watts here to lead the charge, who's tasked with a tricky acting challenge of portraying Amy constantly on the run for eighty plus minutes while trying to stave off her injury and heartache in equal measure.  Watts occupies nearly every frame of THE DESPERATE HOUR, and she's quite outstanding at evoking this poor woman's utter desperation and horror while also giving her a fearless determination and inner strength to do everything in her limited power to ensure her children are safe and sound.  If anything, Watts completely holds this production together with her presence alone. 

Unfortunately, the large issue that plagues this film is its handling of its school shooting premise altogether, and as a piece of social commentary that appears (as far as I can deduce) to want to say something about gun violence/culture and the larger culture of mass shooting in school settings it never seems equal to the task.  There's an exploitative vibe throughout THE DESPERATE HOUR that's chillingly hard to shake, and using the framework of a school shooting spree as a basic jumping off point for your thriller and then failing to explore it in any meaningful way left a bad taste in my mouth.  Maybe this has something to do with the fact that the entire film treats the event from an absolute distance and just focuses on the plight of Amy.  The film looks at the event from the extreme outside and, when everything is said and done, it's really about a beleaguered and traumatized mother and not about those directly in the path of this hellish incident.  THE DESPERATE HOUR comes out on the heels of the infinitely better THE FALLOUT from earlier this year, which was also about the divisive and sensitive issue of gun control and violence in schools, but it got us into the tormented headspaces of the teens that experienced it firsthand and dealt with their journeys towards healing (and it did so without shamefully politicizing it).  THE DESPERATE HOUR doesn't have anything to say about its subject at all, other than kids in mortal danger/parent scared out of her wits.  Noyce and company do a decent job of infusing the film with an undulating sensation of pure dread and Amy's predicament will undoubtedly be relatable to any parent watching, but there's very little substance to be found in terms of penetrating the dark truths behind what is becoming an alarming epidemic of death in American schools.   

Hurting THE DESPERATE HOUR even further is the manner in which the script turns Amy into some kind of throw-caution-to-the-wind one-woman sleuth that frankly goes to extraordinarily implausible lengths to piece together just what in the hell is happening in the school.  This character begins to partake in woefully irresponsible behavior that should almost lead to her own arrest, and it's at this point in THE DESPERATE HOUR when things get too unhealthily unraveled for their own good.  And as the film lunges towards its ridiculous final sections and we start to get the truth behind the school shootings I found myself just rolling my eyes with disbelief.  That, and you also start to question the near limitless stamina of this woman, who is shown running...so....very...much here that the film starts to become unintentionally funny (and don't get me started on the improbable signal strength that she's able to get in the middle of nowhere; reality just starts to shift away from the human element of this story).  THE DESPERATE HOUR seems less concerned with its touchy subject of school shootings and instead morphs into a story of an ordinary woman that turns into a supermom and does things that strain credulity to the max.  There's nothing wrong with films about either tangents, to be fair, but THE DESPERATE HOUR drops the ball as a meaningful commentary piece about a raging societal issue and begins promisingly as a tale of motherly torment, only to then succumb to idiotically misguided plot mechanizations.  

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