The premise of one actor on the phone for 90 minutes can be thrilling if done correctly. Jake Gyllenhaal captured our attention as a 911 operator in “The Guilty” while Tom Hardy managed to keep audiences in suspense by placing 36 phone calls while driving in “Locke.” In “The Desperate Hour” (formerly titled “Lakewood”) Naomi Watts is stranded in the middle of the woods with her iPhone while a shooting takes place at her son’s high school. She franticly places one call after another while attempting to run 5 miles towards the school. Watts is first-rate however the storyline becomes cliched and the film tedious as it runs out of steam.

Watts plays recently widowed Amy Carr who lost her husband a year ago. She’s a single mom raising a young daughter and a teenage son named Noah (Colton Gobbo) who took his father’s death hard. On the morning of the story, he lies in bed unmotivated to go to school. After giving her son a quick prodding, Amy heads out the door for a morning run into the woods and thus begins the one-woman show.

Directed by Philip Noyce who helmed the Harrison Ford action films “Patriot Games” and “Clear and Present Danger” and written by Chris Sparling who has experience with the one-person premise after delivering the Ryan Reynolds thriller “Buried,” the ability to deliver tension from this team is high.

Noyce builds the tension slowly in real-time as Amy notices police cars with sirens blaring speeding down an isolated road on what would normally be a quiet trek through the woods surrounding her neighborhood. Then comes a deluge of warnings signs that something big is going down. She calls the mechanic shop to check on her parent’s car (they are on the way home from vacation) and is told the streets are blocked off near Lakewood High School. Then comes the Amber Alert and news story that an active shooter is on campus and the school is on lockdown.

The camera zooms in on Watts, the pulse-pounding music gets louder and tension mounts as Amy places one call after another, desperate for information. She tries calling Noah who is not answering the phone in the hope that he did stay home from school. She finds out his truck is missing from the driveway as a mother’s worst fear begins to materialize. Calls are placed to friends (other moms headed to the scene) and the mechanic asking him to report what’s happening at the school. Does he see Noah’s truck in the parking lot?

While Amy is placing these calls, she decides to run towards the high school instead of going home to save time, it’s 5 miles either way. She didn’t encounter running into the typical cliches. She trips a few times, hits her head, becomes disoriented, loses cell phone signal, and tries to flag down cars that won’t stop. Yet despite all the triteness, Watts delivers an admirable performance that’s enough to keep us engaged even when the story begins to feel tedious, which it does quickly. A phone call from a detective asking questions about Noah having access to guns and being depressed amps the story back up. Is he the shooter? It’s only when Amy is placed in hostage negotiator mode that the film loses credibility and becomes a tad ridiculous.

“The Desperate Hour” is carried by Watts’ performance. The first half of the film is a nail-biter but the suspense wanes as Amy, who has lived in the area for at least a year, can’t find her way out of the woods which leads to a climax that’s anti-climactic. Shot during the COVID lockdown in the safest way possible (one actor in an outdoor setting), the minimalist setting reflects the script which doesn’t connect us emotionally with any of these characters.

(2 ½ stars)

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Joe Friar head and shoulders

Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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