The global pandemic has provided filmmakers opportunities to get creative in order to make films in unusual circumstances. Already at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, we have seen The Guilty with Jake Gyllenhaal in what is essentially a one-man show connected to the outside world simply by a phone in an emergency operations 911 call center.
Now, premiering today at Toronto, comes Naomi Watts as a mother out for a morning jog in the woods whose world comes crashing down as she learns of a school shooting through her only connection, her iPhone. Taking a cue from other films like Locke with Tom Hardy and Buried with Ryan Reynolds, director Phillip Noyce’s new suspense thriller Lakewood is a bit of a genius idea for moviemaking in the age of Covid-19. Take a major Oscar-nominated star, put her in a story that essentially only requires her on camera for most of an 83-minute running time, place the action all outdoors for extra safety, and hire a supporting cast who mostly can just phone it in from wherever they are in the world. That is the essence of Lakewood, which takes these simple elements, puts them in the hands of Watts and Noyce, and puts us on the edge of our seats.
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Actually, the screenplay comes from Chris Sparling, who also wrote the aforementioned Buried, and seems to know how to create incredible tension in economic locations, in that case a coffin, and in this case, a wooded forest that becomes a maze for Amy Carr (Watts), who panics while on her morning run. She kisses her son goodbye, learns he is not feeling up to going to school, and sets off for some exercise in the nearby woods. As she is running along she has her trusty cell phone, of course, but mostly there is nothing abnormal until she hears some sirens in the distance and some cars acting strangely. It intensifies as she starts to worry when talking to friends and hearing on her phone that there has been some sort of shooting incident at the local high school.
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She still isn’t overly worried about her son, as she knows he didn’t go to school. Or did he? Conversations build, someone points out they saw his truck parked at school after all, she starts to panic, not knowing if he decided to go after all. The panic increases and she loses her way in the heavily wooded area, and increasingly becomes lost. The phone is her only connection to the outside world and it is getting more intense. A call comes in from the cops asking questions about her son’s whereabouts and what was in his truck. Holy s**t. Okay I will stop right there. If some events prove to be a little far-fetched, it is too late to complain, as this movie already had me in its grip, and I went with whatever they wanted to throw at me.
While watching the riveting and pulse pounding Lakewood, I was pretty sure I had this whole thing figured out in the first half hour. Without offering any spoilers, I will only say Sparling’s plotting takes us – and Amy – in unexpected directions. This is a corker of a thriller, and Noyce, who, among many other films, made one of my favorites in the genre earlier in his career with Nicole Kidman in Dead Calm, is a director who knows just how to navigate territory like this and make it pop. It helps that he has Naomi Watts as his star. She is an actor who can ratchet up emotional distress without ever going over the top, and she is asked her to be constantly on edge. This is, like Gyllenhaal in The Guilty, simply a tour de force of acting, and we are with her – terrified – all the way. Hitchcock knew how to do this stuff, and I think Noyce made this in the master’s spirit.
Boies/Schiller Entertainment and Limelight fully financed. UTA Independent Film Group is representing US rights, alongside Endeavor Content and CAA Media Finance. Watts is so in command here, she could easily join the awards conversation if Lakewood manages to get a distributor who wants to throw it into the 2021 race before the end of the year.
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