As more pandemic-produced movies continue trickling out, we’re able to see that for the majority, they can be easily placed in two separate, if ultimately similar, columns: those that use the empty outside expanse to maintain distance from others and those that use a small interior setting to keep things simple. This year’s Toronto film festival boasts a number of films scrambled together in the last 18 months but there are two that revolve around the same gimmick: an A-list star dealing with a tense situation through a string of phone calls. In The Guilty, Jake Gyllenhaal tries to save a kidnapped woman while stuck inside a 911 dispatch centre; in The Desperate Hour (formerly called Lakewood), Naomi Watts tries to get to the bottom of a school shooting while stranded in the middle of the remote Canadian wilderness. They’re both made by sturdy genre film-makers (The Guilty is from Antoine Fuqua of Training Day and The Equaliser and The Desperate Hour from Philip Noyce of Salt and Patriot Games) and both involve a lot of frenzied emoting.
It feels like we’ve got to the end of the back-pat for trying phase of Covid creations, when the mere fact of simply making something during an impossible time was enough to give something a polite pass. And so, while one has to admire the on-paper ingenuity of both films, one can’t also fail to notice that neither film is really quite good enough, pandemic or no. The Guilty is the far better of the pair, which is faint praise – a slick, yet unnecessary, remake of a perfectly acceptable 2018 Nordic film. The Desperate Hour is far less competent and far looser, giving us that doomed feeling of watching something that could have been a decent short film cruelly stretched out to feature-length, interest dissipating by the minute.
Watts is a mother grieving the loss of her husband, who died the year prior, trying to help her two kids through the torture of being left behind. Her teenage son responds by rebelling and one Friday morning, refuses to go to school. Patience at a minimum, she goes for a run deep in the woodland near their home and following an assault of interrupting calls, she decides to go off the grid, to ignore others and embrace the peace of the stunning locale. But when she returns to her phone, she discovers that something is wrong. There’s been a shooting at her son’s school and deep in the middle of nowhere, she has to work out whether or not he went to school and whether or not he’s still alive.
Before things go south, there’s an effectively clammy escalation of panic as Watts leaps from call to call, a nightmarish scenario made all the more unbearable when experienced from afar with limited information. But the script, from Chris Sparling, whose other one-person-on-a-phone thriller Buried managed something similar with far more finesse, isn’t quite ingenious enough to find ways to involve her in the drama. So her understandable desperation quickly turns into rather annoying meddling, repeating herself ad nauseam to people who clearly wouldn’t be able to help and ultimately, turning detective in the increasingly absurd last act.
Back in 2013, Steven Knight’s seat-edge drama Locke showed that the simple activity of watching Tom Hardy on the phone could prove to be as entertaining as any more extravagantly mounted thriller (the less said about his Covid movie Locked Down the better). But Noyce, whose experience within the genre ranges from Dead Calm to The Bone Collector, isn’t able to graduate his film from elevator pitch concept to real justifiable movie. The calls quickly become repetitive and annoying and any early tension disappears as fast as any interest we might have in the safety of Watts and her on-screen son (a last-minute attempt to turn the film into a PSA about school shootings is laughably clumsy). She does try her best and it’s an impressively committed physical performance but it’s yet another non-starter for the actor, whose career has devolved into an unending string of stinkers in recent years.
Other than providing work for a crew who sorely needed it, there’s very little reason for The Desperate Hour to exist.
The Desperate Hour (aka Lakewood) is screening at the Toronto film festival and is seeking distribution