'The Call': 911 thriller hits all the right buttons
By James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Directed by Brad Anderson, "The Call" is a breakneck, truly thrilling thriller, one that builds excitement through both brains and brutality, both shock and suspense. Propelled by a baked-in sense of velocity conveyed to the audience both through Anderson's direction and Richard D'Ovidio's screenplay, "The Call" takes a simple premise and runs -- or, rather, drives -- with it, as 911 operator Jordan (Halle Berry) takes a call at the start of the film from a girl in a home that's being invaded. Jordan follows procedure but can't help the girl despite police racing to her location, and the young girl is later found dead. Six months later, Jordan's shifted to teaching call-takers, not taking calls herself. While touring the L.A. call center with her charges, she has to step into a call made by young Casey Wilson (Abigail Breslin), who's frantically dialing from the trunk of a car she was hurled into by an assailant. What Jordan doesn't know yet -- but will -- is that even as she's trying to help Casey, Casey's in the hands of the killer she couldn't stop before.
Following in the same constrained footsteps as "Cellular" or "Buried," "The Call" never gets too claustrophobic, bouncing between Jordan's concern in the brightly lit call center and Casey's captivity, just as the film's shot zigzag between the crowded urban confines of L.A. and the isolated no-one-can-hear-you-scream terrain surrounding that sprawling city. It's an odd compliment, but "The Call" has a tone that's both lurid and restrained, overwrought and under-sold. There are moments when Anderson shoots a scared, pallid Breslin so closely with a lower-resolution camera that those moments take on a sweat-slicked sense of fear. At the same time, the camera never lingers on the stabbings and slashings and cruelty, and Michael Eklund's bad guy is a more everyday serial killer than most: He doesn't have a flashy nickname or a genius-level IQ, just a certain kind of will and a certain set of skills. (There's one great moment where Eklund, faced with challenges to his planned murder, starts clacking his teeth in anger, and the staccato clack of that tic worms its way into the soundtrack, accelerating and growing louder as fury and frustration build.)
Halle Berry gives an electric lead performance as Jordan, one with real emotion and adrenaline underpinning it. Jordan's not superhuman, just the person who picked up the phone. The film's structure -- two bad days set six months apart -- gives you the kind of speed that means looking too closely at the plot is as impossible as it is inadvisable. When Jordan leaves the call center to check out a hunch, as thriller traditions dictate she must, you can almost accept it as part of the plot's ticking-clock sense of urgency. Breslin gives an excellent performance, too -- a young girl in danger, but not defined by it -- and Eklund brings a carefully measured sense of rage and strangeness to his killer.
Anderson's known for a number of nicely tuned indie efforts ("Session 9," "Next Stop Wonderland," "The Machinist" and "Transsiberian"), and while his recent effort "Vanishing on 7th Street" never got off the ground, "The Call" works as a glossy big-studio thriller. While Jordan and Casey are characters, Anderson never forgets to focus and execute the mechanics of this kind of material, and he shoots with the kind of quiet brilliance that means loud laughter and gasps from the audience. Cinematographer Tom Yatsko superbly manages to go from sun-bleached parking lots to dank rooms that have never seen the light of day while keeping the scenes and compositions united and connected. That consistency and clear excellence is through all of the film thanks to Anderson. For all of its tonal shifts, surprises and changes of locale and circumstance, "The Call" goes as swift and straight as a marksman's arrow from a carefully drawn and precisely aimed bow to the center of the target. With a big star, a blunt premise and its paranoid mindset, "The Call" looks on paper like the kind of early-spring release you'd let ring and ring and never feel compelled to answer, but it's far better than that -- and its hardworking actors, swiftly smart script and sure-handed direction mean that "The Call" connects.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.