Not only do 911 operators have one of the most unquestionably difficult and gut wrenching jobs one could ever possibly undertake, but also one that offers very little hope of catharsis or closure for the people that do it. At one point in director Brad Anderson’s latest film The Call, grizzled veteran dispatcher and heroine Jordan (Halle Berry) very curtly tells a room full of new trainees to never get attached to a call because once the actual authorities arrive on the scene, the situation is once and for all out of their hands.
In some way’s Jordan’s astute speech early on in the film will become prescient words to remember as the first two thirds of the film are pleasingly clever, thrillingly made, fast paced, B-movie fluff that – along with some great performances – save the movie from the final third that you wish the movie would have just hung up on.
Six months after an abduction call goes south, Jordan realizes she needs to get out of the dispatch game because she’s far too shaken to go on. One day while showing some newbies the ropes, a still fairly green operator gets a call that only a veteran in the right place at the right time could handle. A young woman named Casey (Abigail Breslin) has been abducted from a shopping mall parking lot and crammed into the trunk of a car. Calling from an untraceable, prepaid burner phone and with no way of figuring out where she is, the duo work together to find her kidnapper and get her to safety.
The first two thirds of the film have a plot that would be right at home for an hour long police procedural, but there’s a lot of cleverness to the dynamic between Jordan and Casey and to the actual dynamics of how the kidnapping never seems to be going very smoothly. The ideas that Jordan has to try and free Casey without attracting any undue attention make a lot of sense, and it lends to the air that the film is ultimately – again, for the first two thirds – a film about people that are damned good at their jobs and aren’t making stupid mistakes or manufacturing false conflicts among themselves. Everyone in “The Hive” is on the same page here every step of the way, and the scenes within the control room are as kinetic and fast paced as the scenes with Breslin in the trunk are claustrophobic and relentless.
Both elements cut together very nicely thanks to Anderson (Session 9, The Machinist), who despite abusing his wide-angle lens quite egregiously at times, still knows how to mount suspense and action to get the most out of it. While films like Cellular, Speed, Phone Booth, Scream and When a Stranger Calls are exceptions to the rule that any film featuring lengthy conversations over the phone can’t sustain suspense, it’s still extremely hard to make a film work when the two leads are both in tense situations and never in the same room at the same time. Anderson brings a certain amount of tradecraft to the action here, and he makes something that could have been pretty dull and static in lesser hands.
Berry also sells the material wonderfully in the lead. She effectively conveys a career woman that knows she’s past her prime. She never tries to hide it, and it’s more interesting to watch Jordan fumble for ideas when trying to figure out how to help her caller rather than knowing them straight away. She’s flawed and strong in some pretty equally great ways, and it’s undoubtedly the best role she’s been handed in quite some time.
Breslin doesn’t get to do much aside from acting terrified and getting knocked out and around ever several minutes, but she’s good at convey terror. Morris Chestnut has a few good moments as the beat cop assigned to the case (who just so happens to be Jordan’s lover), and David Otunga – the wrestler who gets a token role thanks to this being a WWE Films co-production – doesn’t get to say much but his requisite cameo as Chastnut’s partner shows that he has the on-screen charisma to go ahead with larger roles. As for the villain, Michael Eklund does a great job with a role straight out of a 90s Silence of the Lambs ripoff, conveying a good deal of bad vibes and jittery, frightening moments.
Then, just as the movie starts to become truly frightening and unsettling, it goes completely off the narrative rails in the final third by becoming a completely different and incredibly sleazier style of B-movie exploitation. The twist that was going to come eventually is pretty obvious and a lot of the logical gaps can be easily explained away with a line of expository dialogue, but that’s all forgivable in comparison to the wholly incongruous wrap-up that asks the audience to completely forget everything that came before it regarding who the characters were set up to be in the first place. It makes so little sense and is so unremittingly squirm inducing that if we were still living in the days of 35mm film I would have thought the reels had been switched. Even worse is how forcefully pplagarized the film’s “sting in the tail” which comes lifted almost directly from the most successful horror movie franchise of the past twenty years.
Overall, it’s a fine enough time waster and a decent genre exercise made by people who know what they’re doing, but those looking for great storytelling might want to heed the lead character’s words. You might not like where it’s ultimately headed.
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