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Naomi Watts holds her ear Photo: Vertical Entertainment

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The Desperate Hour is a different kind of trapped-in-a-box thriller

When is a school-shooting movie not a school-shooting movie?

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Oli Welsh is senior editor, U.K., providing news, analysis, and criticism of film, TV, and games. He has been covering the business & culture of video games for two decades.

The setup of The Desperate Hour, a taut, almost real-time thriller starring Naomi Watts, poses an awkward dilemma for the filmmakers. It’s accessible, mass-market entertainment with a premise hinging on an extremely divisive issue: school shootings, and therefore gun control. Should they tackle that issue head on, and risk alienating a substantial chunk of the audience? Or should they soft-pedal it and hope that empathy for their characters and the inherent drama of the tale can change minds on the sly?

The team behind The Desperate Hour — veteran Australian director Philip Noyce (Patriot Games) and screenwriter Chris Sparling (Buried) — take the second option. They strip the story down to its barest essentials until it’s just a mother, alone with her phone and her rising sense of panic. Like last year’s The Guilty, this is effectively a one-hander, with Watts playing off a series of voices in her earbuds.

Amy Carr (Watts) is a grieving widow with a daughter in elementary school and a teenage son. One morning, she takes a personal day, packs her daughter off on the school bus, and tries to rouse her depressed son Noah from his bed. While she’s on a run in the remote woods near their hometown, her phone rings off the hook: her daughter’s school, a friend organizing a moms’ night out, the auto repair shop, her mother who’s flying in that day. Even when she sets her phone to “do not disturb,” an angry buzz cuts through: an emergency alert from the local police department. It’s the call every parent dreads. There’s an “ongoing incident,” and the town’s schools are on lockdown.

Naomi Watts frowns Photo: Vertical Entertainment

Much of the 81 minutes of small-scale action that follows is just about Amy’s mental and physical ordeal as she responds to the news and tries to reach the school. The film only opens up at all at the very end, and even then, just barely. Watts is in every second of the film. It’s a testament to the screenplay’s tight structure and to Watts’ peerless ability to hold the frame that The Desperate Hour works at all as a thriller. But it does: This is a tense watch with a ruthless pace. Noyce knows how to build suspense within tight constraints; before he directed Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan in spy blockbusters, he made his name (and Nicole Kidman’s) with Dead Calm, a gripping 1989 thriller that featured just three characters on one boat.

Watts is fantastic in the film. She excels at desperation and confusion, and she knows how to show naked, raw fragility while disclosing an iron inner strength that’s almost frightening. The film depends on these qualities completely. Working with offscreen callers and assisted by solid sound design, Watts builds out the situation so convincingly that it fills the audience’s imagination. It comes as a surprise to realize that so much of the film is just one woman running around for an hour, because it feels like so much more.

Problems arise, though, when Sparling’s script pushes Amy toward a greater agency in the awful drama unfolding at the school. Amy does wildly irresponsible things that make little sense, and sets events in motion that make even less. It’s a step too far in the name of dramatic expediency, destroying the faith that Watts has so carefully built in the character.

Naomi Watts shouts anxiously at her phone in a back alley Image: Lakewood Film

The Desperate Hour depends on the traumatic resonance of school shootings to create urgency and dread, but the filmmakers seem unwilling to deal with the realities involved. The film is sharp on the specifics of what’s happening at the school, at least within the confines of its plot, but vague to the point of caricature about why it’s happening. Noyce and Sparling evoke the horror parents feel when their children are in mortal danger, and touch on the deeper, darker terror that those children’s lives are, on some level, unknowable, always out of reach. But they don’t entirely grasp the sheer insanity of parents in a prosperous country in peacetime fearing that their kids might be shot dead at any moment — even though that’s the very premise of the movie.

Maybe that’s because they refuse to name the culprit. Over the end credits, there’s an earnest plea that it’s time to “stand up” and that “this has to stop.” But what is “this”? The word “guns” isn’t mentioned once. That seems unforgivably evasive, and not specific enough to be convincing for those who need to hear this message. If The Desperate Hour can change even one mind by stealth, by declining to point fingers, then maybe it was the right call. But it seems more likely that its lack of courage will leave preconceptions unchallenged, and its call for action will ring hollow.

The Desperate Hour is debuting simultaneously in theaters and on digital platforms like Apple and Amazon on Feb. 25.