Ever see a film that feels like half of a good movie mixed up with a half of a bad movie? The Call embodies that sort of strange dichotomy, offering a treatment of a high concept premise that matches every good instinct as to how it should play out with a equal number of bafflingly bad choices.
The premise revolves around the Los Angeles call center that handles all 911 calls. Jordan (Halle Berry) is a veteran 911 operator going about her daily work when she gets a call from a young woman being stalked in her house by an intruder. When the girl gets disconnected, Jordan breaks the rules and calls her back — thus tipping off the killer to the girl’s location. She listens on in horror as the intruder brutally murders the girl.
Months later, Jordan is working as a supervisor and avoiding doing calls when one of the new operators gets a frantic call she can’t handle. Jordan jumps in to pick up the slack and is introduced to Casey (Abigail Breslin), a young girl who has been chloroformed and thrown in a trunk by a kidnapper. She struggles to help the girl out of her predicament as the kidnapper tries to outwit her and the L.A.P.D. When Jordan realizes the kidnapper is the same man who murdered that girl months ago, she vows not to let it happen again.
The plot is a solid enough high-concept premise but it has notable flaws, some of them added by the treatment it gets in Richard D’Ovidio’s script. For starters, the premise hinges on an experienced 911 call operator making the dumbest of rookie mistakes to kick-start the plot. The story also suffers from thin, sometimes cartoonish characterizations: Jordan and Casey are competently drawn if a bit dull, the killer gets progressively more ridiculous as the film goes along and every supporting character is a cardboard cutout.
That said, once Casey is in the trunk and calling Jordan for help, The Call has a good stretch of about 45 minutes where it really cooks as a thriller. Brad Anderson served as director here and brings a stripped-down, jittery feel to the suspense mechanics, making effective, unnerving use of extreme closeups and fast editing. It’s kind of sad to see a director of this pedigree (Session 9, Transsiberian) being wasted on a potboiler but he makes the most of his work here. Berry and Breslin both do good work during this section of the film — this is doubly impressive for Berry when you consider that she spends the film saddled with a ridiculous “Sideshow Bob” wig that should have never been allowed in front of a camera.
However, The Call reaches the end of this quality stretch when it reaches its third act — and everything goes haywire. The strength of the film up to this point was that Jordan could only rely on her wits and skills as an operator to aid the victim — and the film’s creative team makes the dumb decision of making her turn vigilante once it seems the killer might get away. She breaks all rules of logic by going off alone to track down the killer without telling anyone else — and her visit to the killer’s lair is both lurid and cliched, relying heavily on borrowed imagery and staging from Silence Of The Lambs (the camera also lingers in a disturbing way on teenage Breslin in just a bra and jeans). To add insult to injury, the “surprise” coda betrays everything the film has established about its heroines for a really dumb, kneejerk jolt.
In short, The Call is frustrating because it could have avoided all of its mistakes with a rewrite. Berry and Breslin deserved better for their hard work, not to mention a good cast of mostly wasted supporting actors like Roma Maffia, Morris Chestnut and Michael Imperioli. Anderson’s direction is solid throughout but can’t overcome the thin script and ridiculous third-act story decisions. The results are easy enough to watch as they unfurl — but the sum total will leave you unsatisfied.