It’s because I’ve lived away from the U.S. for so long, but whenever I watch an American middle-brow thriller or even a romantic comedy I get overly distracted by the production design; specifically, the degree of near-luxury in which purportedly middle class Americans live. The Desperate Hour, a cheap high-concept suspense film, is pretty representative. Though I know I was meant to pay attention to small details that would eventually add up to something scary or worrying, all I could think about was the sparkly, state-of-the-art kitchen, the spacious bedrooms, and, most intriguing, the huge house itself nestled extravagantly in a perfectly wooded suburb near a lake. Actually, this last detail does serve the story, since our protagonist, widowed mother and full-time tax accountant Amy (Naomi Watts), starts off her morning by taking her constitutional run through the woods where she’s conveniently cut off from the world. Tastefully inserted flashbacks inform us that her family was once a very happy one, but then her husband died and her teenage son, Noah (Colton Gobbo), fell into a depression that lingers a year later. In fact, the week the action takes place is the one year anniversary of his dad’s demise, and Amy seems anxious as to what that means.
So the most important bit of plot business that takes place in the first 15 minutes is when Amy leaves the house for her run she notices Noah is still in bed, feigning illness so that he doesn’t have to go to school. However, as Amy jogs through the sun-dappled woods and talks to various family members and acquaintances (thus adding more plot building blocks) on her iPhone, she is indirectly exposed to intelligence that there is something going on in town, and soon finds out that there is an active shooter at Noah’s high school. Stuck deep in the wilderness without a car—and a failing battery—Amy starts panicking as she realizes that the shooter himself could be Noah.
The Desperate Hour is one of those thrillers that could never be made 15 years ago; not because there weren’t mass school shootings then, but because cell phones weren’t as central to our lives. Watts’s performance is reduced to a stunt, since she’s the only face we see—all the other characters are just voices. What keeps the viewer enthralled is not so much the question of whether Noah really is the shooter, but Amy’s frenzied attempts to find out if he is through strategic calls made to specific parties who might know something. However, this gimmick goes on for so long that the story never locates any purchase on reality, and in the end it’s difficult to care who is doing the shooting or why because it all feels so bogus. I even wonder now if someone in Amy’s financial situation could really afford that house.
Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011).
The Desperate Hour home page in Japanese
photo (c) 2021 Lakewood Film LLC