The Call (2013) / Thriller
MPAA rated R for violence, disturbing content, and language
Running time: 94 min.
Cast: Halle Berry, Abigail Breslin, Morris Chestnut, Michael Eklund, Roma Maffia, David Otunga, Michael Imperioli, Justina Machado
Director: Brad Anderson
Screenplay: Richard D'Ovidio
Review published March 24, 2013
The Call is a titillating but ultimately disappointing thriller centering around a seasoned 911 LAPD dispatcher named Jordan Turner (Berry, Cloud Atlas) who finds herself rattled after one of the victims she is trying to help loses her life in a way for which she feels some responsibility. Psychologically shaken, she gets away from taking calls for for a few months, training new recruits, but is suddenly thrust back into it when she steps in to a call from a teenage girl named Casey Welson (Breslin, Zombieland) who has been abducted by a strange man (Eklund, 88 Minutes) and stuffed into the trunk of a car. Unfortunately, the cell phone she is calling from is a disposable that is difficult to trace, so Jordan must find a way for the police force to find the car without any information that can make it easier.
The WWE production (yes, of professional wrestling fame) is directed by Brad Anderson, who showed some initial promise in such somber thrillers as The Machinist and Transsiberian, while this film feels like leftovers from such 1990s thrillers like Silence of the Lambs if it were stuffed like a turducken inside a dumb thrill-ride thriller like Cellular. Reportedly Anderson serves as a last-minute replacement after Joel Schumacher dropped out, so it's hard to blame him for having to toss this together without proper preparation. The main problem with The Call is its inherent generic qualities, with a mish-mash of camera styles that appear to have been commanded by someone who is using certain features of a digital cam for the first time, such as extreme close-ups, jittery movement, askew angles, strobe effects, and unnecessary slo-mo action. Not that much could have elevated the silly script by Richard D'Ovidio (Thir13en Ghosts, Exit Wounds) to great heights, but it certainly shouldn't have played as a straight-to-video release at the hands of a seasoned director and an Oscar-caliber star like Halle Berry, who seems hell-bent on eroding her star appeal in throwaway roles.
The hook of the film, with its young girl trapped in a car whose only lifeline is at the other end of a cell phone, is certainly a grabber, and does maintain a modicum of interest even if it often feels like we don't learn much more than we had by watching the all-too-revealing trailer. The only things that the trailer manages not to reveal are the kidnapper and his motivation, , if and how Casey is saved, and probably for good reason, as those end up being the worst parts of the storyline, and certainly not worth waiting an hour to get there. Once Halle Berry gets into the action, D'Ovidio's script goes all in to make it a semi-horror excursion, whereby all of the clues to everything can be found out by police looking at photographs hanging on a wall or in a family album.
The screenplay telegraphs its plot points well in advance. Jordan instructs her trainees to never make promises and to always remain detached, which is a sure way to tell audiences that she's going to break both of these rules before the climax. The only time the film ever came close to surprising me is in this climax, mostly because the story takes roads I would have gathered to be too stupid to traverse and still get made into a major motion picture release.
There are moments here and there that do manage to strike an unnerving chord, when the audience can actually fear just how harrowing an experience it must be, not only to be abducted and en route to death, but also how horrible it must be to be a 911 operator who must potentially listen to an anguished and frightened victim's last pleas for help and not be able to do anything about it. It is during these emotional scenes that the film is able to be effective, though Anderson isn't able to carry over the poignancy or sense of terror to other scenes, as the artifice of the main story, as well as the weakness of the main villain, snap things back to the mundane.
The Call maintains a certain watchability due to its prurient and visceral nature, but all the while you get the nagging feeling that the filmmakers are content to try to aim low in an effort to keep things tight and uncomplicated. It's a film that connects its plot points by the thinnest of threads, culminating in a finale that belongs more in a slick and sick horror exploitation like Saw or Hostel than one that plays it mostly as a low-rent thriller in its setup. This is one Call not worth answering.
©2013 Vince Leo