Desperate Hours is based on a classic thriller scenario: a family held hostage in their own home by a criminal. The situation immediately presents several levels of dramatic material. The threat of the criminals. The already present tensions in any family suddenly brought to a head. The constant deadly threat of interruption from the outside world. Everyday domestic life is made sinister when every single normal daily action brings with it new threats.
It only works, though, when the characters involved in some way resemble people. It only works when the level of tension is kept at the right level, just on the breaking point. It does not work when practically every other scene involves people screaming at each other. It does not work when the characters have dialogue no normal person would say and react the way no normal person would react.
Take our villain, Michael Bosworth (Mickey Rourke). He is in prison for an armed robbery, and while on a hearing for additional charges gets in a screaming match with his lawyer (Kelly Lynch). It’s a ruse to get them in a room together so he can take the gun she’s provided him and escape prison. After ditching his old car and getting a new one (in a series of scenes so elaborate and meticulously planned that you’d think they’d have some significance to the plot), he inexplicably drives back into the city at a random rich person’s house to take it over and lie low.
This is a stupid plan, but it can be accepted. We need a movie to happen. The house he picks happens to be one where tensions are high – it has just been sold because the couple that owns it are divorcing. Tim (Anthony Hopkins) cheated on Nora (Mimi Rogers), so he only gets to visit when he’s meeting his kids. Their early scenes together are histrionic, but they lay down the groundwork for some decent dramatic potential.
And to be fair, some of the initial scenes of the home invasion are decently taut and suspenseful. Bosworth has a couple of companions, his brother Wally (Elias Koteas) and Wally’s lummox friend, Albert (David Morse). Their characterizations are vague – Albert might have the hots for Nora. Wally pays too much attention to the family’s teenage daughter, May (Shawnee Smith). Nothing comes of it.
Bosworth promises that no one will get hurt, as long as the family just does what he says. He also plays a little power game with Tim, contradicting him in front of his kids. This would add an interesting dynamic if it lasted more than one scene. But it doesn’t.
A thriller like Desperate Hours builds its tension by creating expectations. Minute details that add up to big pay offs. And the film attempts some of these. Nora calls for a repairman in the morning who arrives at night, well after the invasion begins. May has a fight with her boyfriend who eventually bullies his way through the police (eventually wise to the invasion) and goes to the house himself. All of this would work in a film that had a sense of ratcheting tension.
But Desperate Hours does not ratchet, it spews. Too many scenes wind toward wild action and overacting. And it has no focus. All the scenes with the cops (who are barely introduced as proper characters) are out of a completely different movie. When Albert leaves, ostensibly to join up again with the crew in Mexico, he gets his own little short film that reflects on how his life has separated him from the natural world.
It’s almost fascinating to watch how every element of Desperate Hours seems to be miscalculated. It’s based on a novel and play from the 1954 by Joseph Hayes. He also wrote the screenplay for the 1955 version with Humphrey Bogart and is credited on this screenplay as well. A lot of the dialogue would be more at home in a 1950s movie, but this was filmed in a ‘90s style. The quips and banter of a bygone era are drowned out by helicopter rotors and ambient noise, making it all basically a cacophony.
The best thing going for the film is the cast, but they are largely wasted. David Morse is in his own movie. Kelly Lynch has nothing to do but look like a cool blonde and then scream and weep incoherently. Mickey Rourke tries to play a barely controlled psychopath, but the movie doesn’t seem to know what that looks like. And Anthony Hopkins… as an actor, I believe he is exceptionally good at taking direction. And when the director says becomes a seething histrionic weirdo, he goes ahead and does it, whatever damage it does to the overall film.
Michael Cimino directed this film, and it was the last film he made that had a theatrical release. Most famous for The Deer Hunter and infamous for the financial debacle of Heaven’s Gate, Cimino had been floundering for the best part of a decade when this was released…and flopped. It has some of the visual splendor that he was known for, but almost none of it is in service of the film’s actual story.
Desperate Hours is pretty terrible but it is not boring. It’s too strange to be boring. It’s in a genre that rewards tight plotting, controlled performances, and intricate plotting. Instead, it just hits everything with a sledgehammer. Desperate Hours takes the elements of a good thriller and whips them up like a centrifuge, until everything completely flies apart.
Desperate Hours has been released on Blu-ray by MVD Rewind Collection. Extras on disc include a contemporary behind the scenes featurette (6 min) a trailer and photo gallery.
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