If you've seen the trailer for The Call, you probably think you know what to expect, namely a predictable abduction thriller centering on Halle Berry's frantic but focused 911 operator. That's all I expected, but The Call scoffed at my predictable narrative presumption at every turn. This is a white-knuckled thriller that's more gruesome and graphic than most horror movies masquerading as a crime drama, and it will make you lose control.
Admittedly, the start is sluggish, setting up Berry's character Jordan as a competent and compassionate operator, who can handle tough calls when she's not cuddling with her dashing cop beau (manly eye candy Morris Chestnut). But then comes "the call" that changes everything. A teen girl reports a prowler, who seems hell-bent not on robbery but her. Jordan breaks the rule of 911 operators and gets so personally caught up in this girl's plight that she calls back once the call is disconnected. The phone ringing gives away the girl's position and results in her brutal demise.
Haunted, Jordan transfers to training new recruits for the sprawling hi-tech 911 Emergency Services headquarter known a The Hive. That is until another teen girl named Casey (Little Miss Sunshine's Abigail Breslin) calls, panicked telling the newbie operator that she's trapped in the trunk of man's car having been snatched from a mall parking structure. In a flash, Jordan's back on the line, and has a chance to not only save this girl, but also redeem herself.
The direction by Brad Anderson (Vanishing on 7th Street) is uneven, but once the action gets going, I was drawn steadily in. Though nearly every scene they share is over the phone (a typically painful uncinematic device), Berry and Breslin share an electric energy that pulls the audience—literally kicking and screaming—into their traumatic tale. The tension of the film is taut, impressive considering the premise of girl in trunk should wear thin fast. However, these women share a bond.
They're both fighters, Jordan tells us repeatedly. Moreover, they share ingenuity in adding obstacles to the largely unseen killer at every opportunity, busting out tail lights and pouring paint out them to attract attention from other drivers. Their collaborative craftiness led to full on cheers from the audience on a number of occasions, and while my notebook scribbling was initially an obstacle to my own audible response, it wasn't long before I was also shouting in fear, frustration, and occasional relief.
Good movies make the assembled audience of strangers unite as one pulsing creature. The Call did that. People bucked, wailed, wept and cheered, and were backed up by those huddled around them in the dark. We rooted for Jordan and Casey, so much so that when the film takes a shocking and sort of bonkers final twist, we didn't flinch, we celebrated.
I don't often talk about audience reaction in my reviews, but I don't often see an audience freak out like I saw here. The Call is frightening, fun, and fucked up. But the levels of gore are not for everyone, and at times they are disturbing on a different level.
Anderson has a skill for tension, but also allows for some clunky exposition, unanswered questions, and some dramatically flat dead air. But the biggest issue I have with The Call is its ghoulish fascination with women in peril. Shots of the victims are very close, often using a fisheye lens that makes them look warped. Then the violence inflicted by this madman is gussied up with speed ramps, close ups, and lots of blood. It's the kind of treatment heroes in action movies get, or killers in slasher flicks. It suggests we are meant—on some level—to revel in the torture of these girls, which is a stomach-churning realization.
This was glaring for me when all the violence enacted on the killer is inflicted off-camera. Why hide the vengeful violence when a victim gets to strike back? Typically, that's what we want to see, the violence turned around on the killer. It's a bizarre choice, but not the only one that Anderson makes. Other key moments happen off camera, including Jordan's fateful decision to call back the first threatened teen. Likewise, after much delay on showing this abductor's face, it is finally revealed without much fanfare. Still, the movie's ability to genuinely surprise and terrify is worth praise.
Despite its dicey drawbacks, The Call is a solidly engaging thriller/slasher flick. Without delving into spoilers, I can tell your there's shades of Psycho, Saw, and Disturbia mixed in among this cat-and-mouse premise. There's riveting suspense sequences, scream-inducing scares, and a finale that's deranged but deeply satisfying. Basically, it's a damn good time if you like your thrillers ragged, rough and unpredictable.