A film review by Craig J. Koban March 27, 2013

THE CALL j
½ 

2013, PG-13, 96 mins. 

 

Jordan Turner: Halle Berry / Casey Welson: Abigail Breslin / Michael Foster: Michael Eklund / Paul Phillips: Morris Chestnut / Maddy: Roma Maffia / Jake Devans: David Otunga / Alan Denado: Michael Imperioli

Directed by Brad Anderson / Written by Richard D’Ovidio

When THE CALL delves into the insular and stressful world of 911 call center operators, it’s a semi-involving and fascinating film.  When it glumly devolves into an ever-increasingly lame-brained, ludicrous, and unintentionally funny serial killer/police procedural thriller, then it becomes a very hard pill to swallow.  

Regrettably, THE CALL is from the reliably rock steady Brad Anderson, who previously made the masterfully haunting THE MACHINIST and then followed that up his creepy and effective end-of-days thriller VANISHING ON 7TH STREET.  Here, Anderson seems to lose his confident grip on the material, which is not readily assisted by the fact that the film’s script takes many problematic turns and builds towards an ending that makes not a hill of beans worth of sense. 

On a small positive, THE CALL begins promisingly and firmly entrenches the adept Halle Berry in one of her more stripped down and believable performances in years, which is all the more shameful seeing as how the narrative betrays her good work.  Nonetheless, the story opens with an enthralling hook: Berry plays Jordan, a Los Angelino 911 call center operator that is very strong willed and competent in what she does.  She takes a call in the opening scene from a rather distressed young girl that appears to be home alone during a home invasion.  Unfortunately, Jordan makes one cardinal rookie blunder by losing contact with the girl and then calls her back, during which time the phone ringing in the home tips off the intruder as to the girl’s whereabouts.  She is then abducted, brutally slain, and found in a shallow grave days later.  Predictably, this ordeal leaves Jordan an emotional mess. 

Months go by and Jordan – not being able to cope with the anxiety of being a call center operator anymore – has now become a teacher of her trade.  During one routine tour she’s heading up with her new recruits, she notices that another operator is having great difficulty with a call.  The teen girl on the other line, Casey (Abigail Breslin, thanklessly good as her relatable sufferer), has just been abducted by a sinister madman named Michael (Michael Eklund) and has been thrown into his car’s truck to be transported to an unknown destination.  She calls 911 on her disposable cell phone, but then the greenhorn operator can’t handle the situation, Jordan leaps back into the chair, puts the headset on, and begins a painfully arduous ordeal of locating the girl to save her life. 

 

 

Again, the opening scenes of THE CALL generate moments of fleeting interest, especially considering that they give us a portal into an occupational world that movies rarely provide.  Berry is authentically vulnerable, anxious, but still determined and headstrong playing her blue-collar woman on a mission.  Jordan has moments of startling ingenuity when it comes to helping the police and the general public locate the mysterious vehicle that Casey is trapped in.  At one point, she asks the traumatized girl to kick out the car's back taillight to stick out her waving hand in order to draw attention to nearby motorists.  Another smart move is having Casey pour paint – that is somewhat conveniently placed in the trunk with her – out of the taillight hole to create a trail of where the car is heading.  Pretty smart stuff.

For as much suspense as the film creates early on, it’s kind of stupefying how many absurdly wrong detours and utter lapses in logic the film makes as it progresses, so much so that you may feel like throwing your popcorn up at the screen in frustration.  Take, for instance, the killer himself, who's essentially portrayed by Eklund in an overly hammy and schizo performance that’s kind of all over the map and without a care in the world to generate more unsettling levels of nuance or tact.  The killer is established as an unsavory, unendingly sweaty, and morosely fidgety cretin.  This guy appears so obscenely maniacal and anti-social that only a blind idiot would consider him healthy and stable.  Yet, it’s revealed that he has a relatively stable family life of normalcy with his wife and kids.  How the murderer’s spouse is unable to detect even the slightest problem with her ape shit crazy husband is a befuddling mystery, not to mention that she seems to have no problem with his unhealthy shrine to his dead sister that he has erected in his study, which perhaps hints at a level of incestuous fascination for the sociopath.  Unfortunately, the script never fully explores nor defines this aspect of Michael's unsettling personality. 

Also, for a dude that has a twisted penchant for mercilessly torturing, slaughtering, and ultimately scalping young blondes (his preferred target) in a meticulously decked-out and secret underground lair, Michael seems to be borderline clueless when it comes to the art of kidnapping.  He never searches Casey after he dumps her unconscious body in his car for…say…a cell phone, nor does he ever hear her screams or conversations that she’s having with Jordan while in the trunk.  Then there is the film’s bug-eyed crazy notion that pay-as-you-go cell phones are untraceable, which essentially requires Jordan and the police department to use their collective wits to locate Casey.  Um, yeah, disposable cell phones are indeed traceable, which only further hurts the film’s already flimsy grasp of technical accuracy.   

Amazingly, only Jordan is able to detect - even with the entire might of the LAPD on her side - that, yup, Michael is indeed the same man that killed the initial girl all those months ago, which is not a ringing endorsement for the effectiveness of law enforcement.  This further affront to logic allows Jordan to leave the confines of her call center and into the field, where she is able to piece together clues with lightning speed that no one else can to discover Michael’s insidious lair.   The implausible contrivance of Jordan going in solo – without ever once calling the police for backup – strains modest credulity enough, but when she does confront Michael and the script hurtles towards its finale, the screenplay takes an abrupt 180 degree turn into pure, unmitigated lunacy that kind of wholeheartedly betrays the purer motives and sensibilities of both the victim and her rescuer.  I have rarely seen a film ending as dramatically false and unexplainably questionable on a moral level as this one.

Ultimately, the façade of THE CALL appears to offer up fever pitched intensity and suspense, but the more deeply you penetrate the film’s hollow shell the more it begins to unravel as a derivative, egregiously far-fetched, and frankly insipidly plotted serial killer thriller.  Even the calmly assured hand of Anderson becomes shaky as the film progresses, as he lets his style morph into a series of staccato freeze-frames, ultra-tight close-ups, and other lame visual clichés to help artificially drum up a sense of unrest and terror when a cleaner aesthetic style – and a better script – would have been more suited.  The biggest casualty of the film is that it seems beneath the established talents of its director; he should have placed a call to his agent and demanded better material to work with. 

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