– Summary –
Director : Brad Anderson
Year Of Release : 2013
Principal Cast : Halle Berry, Abigail Breslin, Morris Chestnut, Michael Eklund, Michael Imperioli, David Otunga.
Approx Running Time : 94 Minutes
Synopsis: A 911 operator stays on the line to a young woman kidnapped and thrown into the truck of a car. Together with police assistance, they work to track her down before she’s killed by a psychotic madman.
What we think : Tense, energetic psycho-thriller with Berry in top form, and Abigail Breslin stepping out of her comfort zone, manages to remain gripping until the very last frame. A simple story told with exceptional clarity and precision, this razor-sharp thriller delivers excitement and chills that’ll keep you guessing.
911, what’s your emergency?
If you take anything out of this film, it’s that if there’s ever an emergency, you want Halle Berry to answer your call. The Call, a tense, absorbing thriller from director Brad Anderson (who helmed The Machinist) sees Berry play a 911 operator caught up in the kidnapping of a young girl. The film exposes us to the inner workings of the life of a 911 operator (albeit in pretty dramatic circumstances for this film – even if only part of what we see is true, I’d hate to be in this job!) and it’s this “remain detached” mantra that you just know isn’t gonna carry through to the end of the film. A rule like “remain detached” is just made to be broken, we all know that. It’s the point at which you become attached that’s key here, and Anderson ramps up the skin-crawling tension and breathless police manhunt to a degree that you’re screaming at the screen to just “look the other way, goddamit!” Admittedly the premise isn’t the most original, nor are the characters really fleshed out all that much beyond what the simplistic plot offers us, but Anderson’s ability to carve out depth and nuance in a look, a glance, an expression, is what elevates this pedestrian narrative into a pulse-pounding thrill-ride.
Jordan Turner (Halle Berry) works as a 911 operator in Los Angeles. After a particularly horrific call to her ends in a young girl winding up dead, she questions her ability to perform her job. Months later, taking an instructor’s position at the call centre (given the moniker The Hive), Jordan once again becomes involved in a call where a young girl is kidnapped by a stranger. Keeping the girl, Casey (Abigail Breslin) on the line, through tricks and tactics they manage to get the police on the scent; as the manhunt for Casey grows, and the kidnapper (Michael Eklund) grows more desperate, the fate of Casey takes on an incredibly personal nature for Jordan. The kidnapper’s ulterior motive for taking Casey has a direct link to the murder of the innocent girl months before, and through dedication and persistence, Jordan is able to track down Casey’s location and hopefully save her life.
Nobody really gives 911 operator’s much credit. To most, they’re simply a voice at the end of the phone with whom we form a strong – yet transient – bond, normally at the height of some tragedy or crime, or perhaps something more pedestrian. In any case, a 911 operator largely goes unrecognized by the public until something goes wrong. But the cost of being a 911 operator is a tough one; usually, they hear the worst of the worst, from murders and assaults, rapes and other violent crimes, in amongst the burglaries and stolen cars. The emotional toll on these people must be horrendous, and yet they largely go without thanks from the public, who see (or rather hear) them as a voice on a phone, an off-site friend who helps them through a trying time. The Call touches on this, and it’s refreshing. However, it uses this high pressure job as a springboard to ratchet up the tension for Berry’s Jordan, as she must rebuild herself emotionally after a cruel and soul-crushing blow to her psyche – one of her calls ends with a girl being murdered. It’s harrowing, and The Call pulls no punches in this regard. In many ways, it makes the film’s eventual conclusion more evocative, even if it’s something of a lapse in character truth simply to maximize the “hell yeah” from the audience. But I digress.
High concept films such as these, which generally occur between two or maybe three people (remember Cellular? This film is a lot like that) run the risk of blowing their best stuff too early in the piece. The twists and turns of a convoluted plot can often stretch credibility, strain logic, and usually subvert character development. The Call does all those things – credibility goes out the window late in the film, as does logic and character development, as the finale of the film swings for the fences and – in my opinion – misses out on a genuine emotional payoff. Instead, the film’s conclusion slips into crowd-pleasing titillation (or rather, sadism) at the expense of all the great work done in the preceding 80 minutes. Discussing the ending of the film this early in a review seems counter-intuitive, but for me, the final frames of the film felt a little…. gratuitous. The majority of the film carefully set up all the twists, all the near-misses and close calls, and the characters all felt believable and morally centered even in the face of horrendous evil; Anderson drops the ball with three minutes to credits, opting for a sucker-punch ending rather than one befitting the characters we’d just spent time getting to know.
Right from the get-go, we’re into the world of the 911 call, and the heightened emotional state of the operators plays out when one call goes wrong for Halle Berry. This sets us up for a resurrection of her character – after all, a good character arc must come from a learning experience, or some kind of personal growth. Jordan’s failure with one call makes her more determined to have a positive outcome on the next. The journey she – and we – take through the film is enthralling, not only from a purely cinematic standpoint but also from a character-driven one. Jordan’s got a point to prove, and Berry plays her with the fractured, harried and harangued expression of nervous explosion. Her inner strength comes to the fore when it’s needed most. Breslin, working on the other end of the phone, plays the kidnapped Casey with sweaty, screechy perfection. She’s scared witless, but has enough guts (with Jordan’s help) to try and make life as tough as possible for her kidnapper. Michael Eklund plays the kidnapper, and a creepy one at that. He constantly seems on edge, which is fair enough considering he’s got a hostage in the back of his car, and as his plans unravel he becomes more and more psychotic. His end-game plan is truly insane, which heightens the inevitable showdown between the Bad Guy and the Good Girl, lifting the stakes higher than ever.
The trouble is, the characters aside from Berry’s are thinly developed, which I guess is to be expected from a genre film such as this, even if it’s still disappointing. Once the action and the chase kicks into gear, though, the last thing you’re worried about as a viewer is what Jordan’s parents must think, or if Casey’s family gives a crap. Casey’s family are never shown, distancing her as a real person from the events of the film, while Jordan’s burgeoning relationship with police officer Michael (Morris Chestnut, in a fairly perfunctory role) gives us at least a glimpse of a personal life for the leading lady. However, the dramatic elements of the film are focused primarily on the action itself, and Anderson delivers. The camerawork never feels rushed or scattershot: Anderson has a sure hand behind the focus pulling and the framing, ensuring we see everything we need to (and often, stuff we probably wish we hadn’t) to make the story work. A truly ridiculous plot twist late in the third act (look, it’s got to do with keeping Jordan as a participant in the film, rather than a passive observer once the call to the Hive goes dead, so you can probably figure it out for yourself – if you can, you’ll understand why I was rolling my eyes in disbelief!) ruins some of the suspension of disbelief, and the aforementioned finale of the film does deviate the characters from their known personalities, but Anderson keeps the tension and the suspense right up to boiling point throughout the majority of this films eerie narrative.
The Call is never going to win an Oscar for anything (except perhaps for set design) but as a thriller it’s commendably exciting. The motivations for the killer seem ham-handed, and the general cop-out of an ending do drag this one down a point or two in my eyes, but on the whole The Call delivers scares, terror and horror in equal doses to the point where I can thoroughly recommend it. With the obvious caveats to genre conventions notwithstanding, The Call is an entertaining thrill-ride that goes to places you’re not quite expecting, even if those places end up being somewhat out of left field. This film comes directly from the top shelf.