2013 - 94 minutes
Directed by: Brad Anderson
Written by: Richard D'Ovidio
Starring: Halle Berry, Abigail Breslin, Morris Chestnut, Michael Eklund,
Brad Anderson has helmed effective and atmospheric thrillers including The Machinist and Transsiberian and, though largely homogenized and polished up a bit more, The Call mostly works for three-fourths of its runtime. Despite Halle Berry’s hair.
The premise is simple and accessible and is treated as such with an exciting B-movie sensibility. Seasoned 911 operator Jordan Turner (Berry) takes calls that range from multiple stabbings to unwanted bats flying around someone’s house. Amid the sometimes serious, sometimes ridiculous chatter one night comes a frantic call from teenager Leah who has a prowler at her door. Officers are several minutes away and Jordan attempts to talk Leah through the situation until a clever plan they follow is undermined by a mistake from Jordan and things don’t end well. (Side note: I think we need to place a moratorium on the scared, whimpering girl staring at the camera being pulled suddenly away by the bad guy.)
Six months later, Jordan is no longer taking calls but training newbies on the ways of “The Hive,” as they call their command center. This also gives filmmakers a clunky way to shoehorn in a bunch of exposition and information about emergency services to spout directly to the audience. Things like how rainy days are when they get the suicide calls. And calls are slow on Saturday mornings because people are recovering from Friday night. “What happens on Friday night?” one of the trainees conveniently asks. Answer: “All hell breaks loose.”
Meanwhile at a local mall, teenager Casey Wilson (Abigail Breslin) and her friend are finishing up a day of shopping and gossip. The friend runs off leaving Casey alone and it’s not long before she’s abducted and in the trunk of a kidnapper’s car.
We all know what’s coming next. Casey places a 911 call and Jordan gets back into the fray to talk her through the ordeal. And though we’re not told immediately, we also know, of course, this kidnapper will eventually be revealed to be the same man from six months prior.
All we can ask at this point is to be taken on a ride that feels plausible. And for the most part, it does. There’s a reason the kidnapper doesn’t take the phone Casey has. There’s a reason emergency services can’t track it. The actions taken by Jordan and Casey as they build their phone relationship all seem reasonable. They try things to bring attention to what’s going on cleverly and there wasn’t an instance where I was thinking they were being senseless. The only moment of plausibility pause in the first two acts is the inquisitive citizen played by Michael Imperioli. It seems like he has every chance to piece together what is happening, but then again if you saw paint dripping from someone’s broken taillight would your first assumption be that someone was trapped inside the trunk? Maybe not.
It’s at this stage when more begins to be revealed about the kidnapper. He began a faceless, mysterious archetype but we see his desperation with his interactions with Imperioli’s character and an unfortunate gas station attendant. The authorities are also piecing things together and logically discover who this guy is.
The kidnapper and his story are another thing that works in The Call. He doesn’t give a grandiose speech about why he does what he does. His story is shown, not told. Cops (including one played by Morris Chestnut, who is, or was, in a relationship with Jordan…I think?) descend upon his quiet suburban home where we see a supportive wife who doesn’t believe her husband “could do something like this,” and their two young kids. We also see glimpses into his past – again, shown and implied.
Then we arrive at the third act where things go off the rails a bit. The call is disconnected, the kidnapper appears to have slipped through the fingers of the authorities and Casey seems doomed. That is, until Jordan decides to take action herself and drive to a location that was deemed a false lead. The cops are also looking, but you can probably image which of the two happen upon the man and the girl.
It’s here where we get the dreaded “no signal available” for the first time and the first real questionable actions taken by the characters. And those actions continue pretty much from this point to the end. What was an effective little thriller with characters we were rooting for against a disturbed, damaged and deranged man suddenly turns into a morally ambiguous revenge tale. While this gets the adrenaline pumping a bit and elicited some cheers from the audience I saw the film with, after the cut to black that immediate rush was gone and I was left a little wanting.