“THE CALL” (Movie Review)
Rushed into its release slot today after Sony’s next-to-last-minute bumping of CARRIE to the Halloween season, THE CALL, which only began filming late last summer, feels neither rushed nor like a throwaway substitute. It’s an accomplished suspense/psychothriller in many ways, let down only by unfortunate lapses in the home stretch.
One positive sign heading in is the presence at the helm of Brad Anderson, director of THE MACHINIST, SESSION 9 and other independent projects that have evinced his talent for distinctively stylized thrills. He adapts well here to the demands of a more mainstream thriller and star vehicle, in this case showcasing Halle Berry as a 911 operator having a couple of especially bad days. As Anderson and scriptwriter Richard D’Ovidio swiftly evoke the procedure and workaday vibe around the call center known as “The Hive” (the movie’s original title) in the opening scenes, Berry establishes her Jordan Turner as a supercompetent and reassuring voice on the other end of the line for citizens with concerns ranging from frivolous to deadly serious.
An extreme case of the latter is a teenager named Leah (Evie Louise Thompson) who desperately reports a stranger trying to break into her house in the middle of the night. Things go very wrong in a manner that has Jordan blaming herself, and six months later, she has switched posts to become a trainer of new recruits. In the middle of a tour of The Hive, she overhears an inexperienced operator taking a call from another desperate girl, who has been abducted from a shopping mall and is locked in the trunk of a traveling car. Putting her self-doubts aside, Jordan takes over and assures the terrified Casey Welson (Abigail Breslin) that help will be on the way, setting off a lengthy, taut and tense stretch of the film that also plays fair with plausibility.
Deftly marrying the tropes of police-investigative and confinement thrillers, Anderson and D’Ovidio intercut Jordan’s efforts with cops in the field, Casey’s claustrophobic terror and glimpses of the nutcase (THE DIVIDE’s Michael Eklund) driving her to an unspecified fate. While providing a reassuring voice, Jordan also advises Casey on strategies to escape or alert other drivers, and as Berry convincingly brings out her character’s inner strengths as she encourages Casey to find her own, Breslin ably balances panic and moments of both resourcefulness and despair. (She has a particularly moving moment when Casey, knowing her communication with Jordan is being recorded, delivers a heart-rending goodbye to her mom.)
Using selective focus on Jordan and tight close-ups on the trapped Casey, Anderson creates a tangible bond between the two women, and while his handling of action is as slick as a commercial thriller requires, he also doesn’t shy away from the story’s grottier, more fetishistic aspects as we learn more about the psycho and his activities. It’s also nice to see a film like this that’s free of gratuitously stupid or obstructive characters to throw a monkey wrench into the heroine’s efforts; Roma Maffia has some nice moments as Jordan’s no-b.s. but ultimately sympathetic supervisor, and Morris Chestnut does solid work as Jordan’s cop boyfriend, doing his best to track Casey down and follow up on clues Jordan provides. Inevitably, of course, there comes that moment where the psycho outwits them all, hope seems lost and Jordan doesn’t know what to do next—and at that point, unfortunately, it feels like the script doesn’t either.
What follows are about 10 or 15 minutes in which the narrative is forwarded through a series of coincidences, implausibilities (when a packet of backstory-revealing photographs is discovered, you might be distracted by wondering who took them) and just plain dumb behavior. This plot, of course, requires that Jordan be maneuvered into a position where she can directly help Casey, but surely there was a way to get her there without the head-slapping developments employed here. After the distinctive and original storytelling of the first hour or so, the climax is overly familiar too, one more descent into territory that’s been well-mined in the two decades since THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS first broke the ground.
Still, Anderson and his cast keep up their good work right to the end, and there are squirmy moments to be had even while you get the sense you’ve seen all this before. (Unfortunately, if you’ve watched the trailer, you have seen too much of it before, along with a key third-act revelation.) And the very last scene does go where not all studio thrillers dare, wrapping things up on an audience-pleasing high note. Had more of the preceding half hour carried a similar convention-defying kick, THE CALL could have stood as a great thriller instead of a pretty good one.