The “cell phone thriller” has been around at least since the rise of screenwriter William Monahan, who perfected the script that only requires one “star” on the set at a time with “The Departed” and “Body of Evidence.”
Somewhere tonight, Monahan’s sitting in a Boston bar grousing “Hey I was getting there” as “The Desperate Hour” arrives in theaters. Here’s a movie that has just two stars — Naomi Watts and her character’s iPhone.
Phillip Noyce may be far removed from his peak years, when “Dead Calm” and “Patriot Games,” “Rabbit Proof Fence,” “The Quiet American” and “Salt” made him the most in-demand director of thrillers Australia has ever produced. But give him Naomi Watts, park her in the woods on a run with an iPhone, and damned if he doesn’t get a tight, engrossing “ticking clock” thriller out of that myopic scenario.
“The Desperate Hour” is a near real-time tale of a widow who gets her little girl onto the bus, rousts her disaffected teen son out of bed and takes a “personal day” to go for a run.
But as she jogs through the woods (the film was shot in northern Ontario), multi-tasking pleas from her little girl, errands from traveling parents and appointments, she gets a clue…or five…that maybe that “Siri, ‘do not disturb‘” command was a bit premature.
Police cars hurtle past her on the back road she’s running down — first one, then groups of two and three.
By the time the emergency alert comes over, a little guilt should be kicking in with a growing sense of panic. Something’s happening at her kid’s school. Which kid? Oh no, it’s the HIGH school?
“Desperate Hour” is what we pass with Amy, out in the woods, on trails and dirt roads, using everything that an iPhone can deliver — information, a long contacts list to plow through for “What have you heard?” updates from friends and other intermediaries with eyes on the school, navigation, ride sharing, social media research, live streaming video from “the scene” via local TV news, and 911.
That’s a number Amy proceeds to wear out over the frantic hour or so in which this “incident” unfolds.
The average viewer is going to pick up on a lot of things here that don’t mesh with reality. Amy’s got mad iPhone skillz, able to pop from screen shots and social media postings by her son and others to calls, calls upon calls, text exchanges and the aforementioned “live” video. But what stands out about her dizzying directory of dials is how unfailingly polite one and all are, how indulgent each and every cop, parent, mechanic, co-worker, kid and school secretary are of this demanding, pleading crazy lady on the other end of the line.
Only one person hung up on her? Oh. Right. Canada. Well, the setting feels like the more school-shooting crazed US, but you can see how the screenwriter, cast and crew might be confused.
If she’s not badgering the school and the SAME 911 operator over and over, Amy’s hassling the auto body shop where she’s supposed to pick up her parents’ car, because the shop is across the street from the school.
Call after call begins with “C.J. I need you to do something for me.” She’s pestering a parent of an injured child at the hospital, doing detective work about which vehicles the cops have been searching on school property through the aforementioned “C.J.” and generally rolling over whatever lockdown protocols the school and the cops have in place.
This, along with Amy’s lack of curiosity and alarm at being passed by a fleet of cop cars falls under “stupid stuff you have to half-ignore to enjoy this movie.”
Watts is unsurprisingly affecting as a woman growing over more frantic at the Lyft driver who can’t get to her, the teen whose radio silence is alarming on several levels and the helplessness any parent would feel, standing outside the school or “40 minutes away” as Amy always seems to be. She experiences this entire incident via phone.
“What’s that? What’s that noise?”
Watts lets us see a modern, cell-savvy woman who can work a problem, lunging from instant-question to instant-answer or new request, to being scared witless at the sad, bitter videos she sees her son has posted since the death of his father the previous year.
And Noyce heightens our pulse rate and our connection to Amy’s impotent desperation by circling her with a hand-held camera, emphasizing her isolation, playing up her gasping efforts to get to the school or get someplace where somebody can pick her up.
Yes, “Desperate Hour” has a whiff of “the longest, slickest iPhone ad ever.” There are plenty of “Who would DO that? What cop would ALLOW this?” And “What the hell is she THINKING?” about the film.
But as Watts hyperventilates, checks navigation for the nearest major road and pieces together, in her head, what’s really going on, I bought in. As Noyce and Watts bulldoze through lapses in logic, protocols or just plain common sense, I got more invested.
Whatever the “logic” of the piece, Noyce makes every limitation the scenario presents him with an asset.
No, it’s not a reinvention of the “ticking clock” thriller. But an expert director, a good actress, arresting settings and a sense of genuine urgency make “The Desperate Hour” pass in what feels like a breathless 45 minutes.
And “iPhone ad” or not, watching Watts power through this picture with nothing jogging togs and Apple’s pride and joy has me sold. Maybe I’ve bought my last Android after all.
Rating: PG-13 for thematic content and some strong language
Cast: Naomi Watts, Colton Gobbo, Andrew Chown
Credits: Directed by Phillip Noyce, scripted by Chris Sparling. A Roadside Attractions/Vertical release.
Running time: 1:25