When your 84 minute movie about family trauma turns into a school shooting thriller, but that thriller is also about the mother of the family who has the worst jog of her life and that jog involves dozens of phone calls to and from 9-1-1, it doesn’t need a director. It needs a life coach and a personal trainer. The public, meanwhile, needs a hostage negotiator. That mother? She actually becomes one too. And since Naomi Watts plays her, it seemed reasonable to assume that Amy’s helplessness would reach more than this one note. But no.
It doesn’t take much time to explain what’s happening here. A recently widowed mother of two named Amy (Watts) lets her teenage son languish in bed while getting some morning exercise in the nearby woods of a generic mid-Atlantic town. While she’s gone, Amy discovers that someone heavily armed has raided her son’s school and opened fire. Is he a victim? Is he the shooter?
For answers, Amy rushes to the ankle hazard she flips, making frantic phone calls all the way: to the mechanic not far from the siege, to a friend with a kid at school, to a black police coordinator (repeatedly) named Dedra , who, in the midst of all the chaos, makes time to comfort Amy with phrases like, “You did what any other mom would do.”
The only thing I want less than a thriller about a school shooting is a thriller whose other main character is the main character’s iPhone. Watts must evoke fear of dropped calls and dead batteries, of deceptive ride-share arrival times and unknown callers, of calls that go straight to voicemail. She has to find a way to play the kind of person who is already taken and has already made half a dozen mid-run calls there’s a crisis, someone we wouldn’t mind saying something like, “Siri: Directions to Lakewood Community Center. Fastest route” or “You took out other people’s children. Why can’t you get mine out?”
Few movie actors can express parental anxiety better than Watts. The physical beating she received in “The Impossible” felt commensurate with her feat of a mother’s determination to reunite her family. The film turned the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami into an action melodrama, but Watts’ mastery of physical suffering transcends the film’s racial depravity. Her privileged mother convincingly stood up for motherhood itself.
“The Desperate Hour” becomes impossible of its own kind. There’s no way Watts can make this person more than the most annoying character I’ve encountered in a fictional work in a long time. Until Amy, I hadn’t really been able to appreciate the difference between courage and impudence. She accuses that mechanic of probably illegal quests. And when she brought her urgent limp to the scene with two telephones in her hand, it was my turn to call the police. Amy, come on. That’s your Lyft driver’s phone!
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Watts teams up with director Phillip Noyce, a veteran of fantastically intimate suspense films (“Dead Calm”) and expensive Hollywood pop (“Patriot Games”, “Sliver”). Nothing works for them here. The camera shakes a lot, but can’t find a single shocking image. The boop-boop and tingles of a smartphone might be the sounds of state-of-the-art communications, but, boy, are they a great craft degradation for a film-maker who might elicit shivers from cracking wood on a boat.
The source of all of the film’s problems is Chris Sparling’s script, which relegated everyone but Amy to off-screen voices and FaceTimes, to intensify her stress and isolation. But these are gimmicks that result in a whipped-up horror that equates the crisis of endangered children with the nightmare of a dying phone battery.
The Desperate Hour
Rated PG-13. (School shooting stress.) Duration: 1 hour 24 minutes. In theaters and for rent or sale on Apple TV, Google Play and other streaming platforms and pay TV providers.