A new film starring Academy Award-nominated actress Naomi Watts was released in theaters at the end of February, though I’m not completely certain that it exists. It’s called The Desperate Hour, and it is not an exclusively direct-to-streaming film (you do have the option to see it at a few theaters, or you can rent it online at any number of streaming websites for around $7). Directed by Patriot Games’ Phillip Noyce, The Desperate Hour (originally titled Lakewood) premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year where it received almost no fanfare amid largely poor reviews. It then quietly released on February 25th, upon which it garnered even more less-than-rosy feedback. The film has, thus far, been seen so little that its 28% critical consensus on Rotten Tomatoes does not yet have an audience consensus to potentially counter it.
Of course, many reviews do take care to point out that Watts, in particular, is putting in the work in this film about a mother searching for her child after an active shooter causes her town to lock down. Matt Zoller Seitz wrote that “Naomi Watts is, as is so often the case, brilliant, riveting our attention for nearly 90 minutes in which the focus is almost entirely on her worried face and voice, and the screen of her mobile phone.” Oli Welsh called Watts “fantastic.” And why wouldn’t she be? As Seitz mentions, Watts is frequently incredible. She’s one of our best working actresses and a household name, rarely giving a bad performance. Before her American breakout in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive over 20 years ago, the British actress—raised partly in Australia during late adolescence—acted in supporting and bit parts in Australian films and television shows for years, but struggled to find her footing in America. That all changed when she met Lynch in 1999, at age 31, who hired her for the lead role in his surreal neo-noir. Following an interview after seeing her headshot, he hired her without even looking at her past work. He just had a feeling about her.
That feeling paid off for Watts, who went on to have a fruitful career across the 2000s. She’s starred in films like Gore Verbinski’s popular remake of Ringu, in Peter Jackson’s King Kong, in Eastern Promises, 21 Grams, The Impossible, I Heart Huckabees and Michael Haneke’s remake of his own Funny Games. Watts has been nominated for countless awards (including Best Actress Oscar nods for both The Impossible and 21 Grams) and she’s won 46 of them. But things seem to change around the 2010s, where the films Watts chose almost all have the unmistakable air of forgettable, direct-to-video drivel. Aside from one of Noah Baumbach’s more overlooked works—While We’re Young, which she starred in alongside Ben Stiller back in 2014—Jean-Marc Vallée’s Demolition (2015) and sharp social thriller Luce (a Sundance breakout from 2019), Watts seems committed to a type of film that nobody wants to see. Penguin Bloom? The Wolf Hour? Chuck? You can’t convince me that these are real movies!
This mystifying pattern in Watts’ late career was even written about almost exactly one year ago by another baffled Watts fan. This was upon the release of yet another nonexistent film called Boss Level, in which she starred alongside Mel Gibson and not-real-movie regular Frank Grillo. Nick Schager wrote that, at the time, Watts had a second film set to come out later that year, This Is the Night, and goes on to hypothesize that it could prove to be a major comeback for her. This Is the Night was released last September and has a 13% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Schager was as confused as I am as to what happened to Watts’ roles, noting that things most drastically changed in her career following her turn in the Oscar-winning Birdman, her second collaboration with director Alejandro G. Iñárritu. Arguably, Watts’ best role and strongest performance of the past decade was in her 2017 reunion with Lynch on the third season of Twin Peaks, playing the fiery housewife foil Janey-E to Kyle MacLachlan’s near-mute Dougie Jones. Not that Watts is truly ever bad, but it is unsurprising that Lynch knows how to get an unforgettable performance out of her. He gives her a role that plays to her strengths: As Janey-E, Watts is constantly veering into extremes, transitioning seamlessly from vexed irritability to impassioned sincerity that always borders on the screwball. Watts shows off her versatility as both a dramatic and comic actress, and in a great work of art.
In the end, Schager chalked Watts’s inexplicable disappearance from A-list roles up to questionable decision-making skills, hoping that she “picks her endeavors more wisely going forward.” But Watts never used to have such a struggle with picking top-quality projects, and she’s worked with a large number of acclaimed directors. Investigation into this phenomenon forces one to only speculate. Was it something in her personal life? She separated from husband Liev Schreiber in 2017, though things began to nosedive in her filmography a few years before that. Was it one particular role? Watts starred in The Book of Henry, which was so infamously disastrous and poorly received that it has been rumored to have gotten director Colin Trevorrow kicked off of a Star Wars film. The most recent, truly noteworthy project Watts was involved with was the since-canned Game of Thrones prequel, which filmed a pilot that will never see the light of day. Maybe it’s just a string of bad luck.
Or perhaps it’s her management. Interestingly, Watts returned to CAA last January from a brief stint with WME (though she still maintains representation from Untitled Entertainment, who represent clientele like Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner and Dakota Johnson). In fact, all three of her films from the past year—Boss Level, The Desperate Hour and This Is the Night—were filmed before Watts had signed on with CAA. But another curious detail is that she produced or executive-produced a handful of her latest projects, The Desperate Hour included. This extends to her upcoming project, Infinite Storm, which Watts joined almost exactly one month after signing with CAA. Co-directed by Malgorzata Szumowska (Never Gonna Show Again, The Other Lamb) and frequent collaborator Michal Englert, Infinite Storm is based on a true story with Watts playing Pam Bales—a woman caught in a blizzard while on a solo journey up Mount Washington.
Maybe this time will be different. But despite Infinite Storm’s planned release in just a few weeks, one would think from the marketing (or lack thereof) that it doesn’t exist. It would make far more sense if Watts—possibly in the aftermath of The Book of Henry fiasco—was angling for a quieter career taking a chance on promising indies; Luce and her involvement in the producer’s chair feel like evidence that this might be what she’s trying to accomplish. If so, it would be correct to consider that her sense for projects just isn’t quite there yet, giving her a wildly imbalanced hit-to-miss ratio. Things could always turn brighter over time, with guidance from her new management. As I look towards the future, I can only hope there are better Naomi Watts films in it.
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.