For two-thirds of its 95-minute running time, The Call, starring Halle Berry as a Los Angeles 911 operator trying to save a teen captive from a serial killer, is a trashy but entertaining budget thriller. Then, for its last third, the entire thing gets a Frankensteinian head transplant, and turns into derivative serial-killer nonsense. This is a shame because The Call represents one of Berry’s better roles in years, and a clever variation on the locked-room escape game.
Halle plays Jordan, a call-centre veteran in an amphitheatre-sized chamber called The Hive, where dozens of men and women answer phones, direct calls to the police, fire department or animal control, try to talk down suicides and serve as the front line in the battle to keep the city as safe as possible. In short order, we establish the professional bona fides of Jordan, the daughter of a cop and the beau of another policeman (hunky, understanding Morris Chestnut). Dressed in a dark-shirt-and-slacks uniform and with a pedestrian poodle-poof hairdo, the petite Berry still looks gorgeous if a bit like a pretty, adolescent boy. But her no-nonsense look goes with her professional cardinal rules: Stay emotionally detached and don’t make promises to callers if you can’t keep them.
That works for her until a night when a terrified teenager calls to say a prowler is breaking into her house. Suddenly the phone is disconnected and when Jordan hits redial, the prowler picks up and taunts her before taking the victim’s life. Jordan’s professional cool is shattered.
Move ahead six months later, when Jordan has left her front-line job to work as a call-centre trainer instead. When a similar call comes through, Jordan gets pulled back into the fray. The victim is once again a blonde teenager, Casey (Abigail Breslin), who has been drugged and is calling from the trunk of a moving car. The bad guy isn’t so dumb as to forget to take Casey’s phone, but she happens to be carrying a friend’s spare one.
Until the wheels fall off, The Call makes for a fairly lively ride. Director Brad Anderson, best known for such movies as Session 9 and The Machinist and more recently for work on long-form television series such as The Wire and Boardwalk Empire, uses a lot of claustrophobic close-ups and occasional freeze-frames during action sequences. But for the most part, he keeps the action hopping.
After a brief teasing delay, the movie unceremoniously reveals the villain, blandly handsome Michael (Michael Edlund), who plays music so loudly while he drives that he doesn’t hear the phone conversation taking place in his car’s trunk. While the police try desperately to trace the source of the call, Jordan bonds with Casey (they both liked Bridesmaids) and coaches the girl into staying calm and helping the police identify the car as the killer heads out of the city. A complication is introduced when another driver, Alan (The Sopranos’ Michael Imperioli), notices a problem with the vehicle and is determined to help out. But mainly, the story cross-cuts between Jordan in the call centre, Casey in the cramped trunk, and Michael on the highway.
It’s when Jordan gets away from her desk and decides to play sleuth that the movie loses its connection. The character of Michael, a lazily slapped-together mix of Psycho’s Norman Bates and The Silence of the Lambs’ Hannibal Lecter, has a barely explained obsession with his deceased big sister. Berry’s Jordan, so astute at coaching Casey, behaves with inexplicable recklessness, and the ending feels like something pulled out from Quentin Tarantino’s schlock B-movie homage, Death Proof.
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