Review: “The Call”

Halle Berry stars as a 911 operator in "The Call," here reviewed by film critic James Frazier.“The Call” is three parts “Cellular” and one part “Buried.” It’s a phone-driven thriller that sees a 911 operator on the line with a kidnapped girl as the girl’s captor transports her to the site of what will be a gruesome death. The high-concept premise doesn’t yield much new outside of its unusual setting, but the film’s scenario is constructed and played out with care, effectively utilizing the story’s innate suspense and applying it to the fates of its characters.

Halle Berry stars as Jordan, the prettiest 911 staffer in Los Angeles and what one might call a smooth operator if one had a love for bad puns. Much of the film is set at a 911 headquarters, a massive, expensively decorated and furnished facility where workers sit at elaborate computer stations and talk the citizens of Los Angeles County through various crises, both grave (gunshot wounds) and minor (do you have a good recipe for eggs?). These operators are presented as competent, serious individuals whose job is physically safe but potentially devastating psychologically. I’ve no clue as to the realism of the film’s presentation of the profession, but it showcases an interesting, largely ignored setting that seems like a natural choice for a thriller.

Jordan’s own nightmare starts when she bungles a home invasion call, resulting in the death of a teenage girl, a trauma that causes her to switch over to training new operators. As tends to be the case when a movie star’s character screws up at the beginning of a Hollywood production, Jordan gets a shot at redemption upon taking a call from Casey (Abigail Breslin), another teenager, who finds herself stuck in a madman’s trunk after a day at the mall.

The meat of the plot occurs in the second act, in which Jordan stays on the phone with Casey as the kidnapper (Michael Eklund) moves toward his destination. Though logic stretches at times during this part, and much believability hinges on the film’s assertion that prepaid phones aren’t as traceable as the postpaid variety, director Brad Anderson and screenwriter Richard D’Ovido ground the happenings in conceivability. These scenes unfold in what feels close to real time, yet they’re quickly paced and replete with hair-raising close calls, skirting unreasonable outlandishness. Casey is able to seize upon the kidnapper’s (somewhat unlikely but possible) errors in order to signal to other motorists, while the misfortunes for good and bad guys alike mount as the villain manages to barely stay ahead of the law. Breslin proves to be the film’s MVP, giving a performance that’s teary and terrified, largely from the confines of the trunk.

Problematic is the final act, which I won’t explicitly spoil, except to say that Jordan leaves the safety of the 911 office to personally search for her RP (911-speak for “reporting person”). Forget the absurdity of that fact alone; there are many especially troubling plot-points in this segment that throw the film’s already shaky logic to the wind, hurtling towards a violent conclusion that’s only unpredictable because it falls apart under even mild scrutiny.

But even so, the close isn’t a total debacle, because it carries with it the significant dramatic momentum of what came before. As a thriller of this sort should, “The Call” has supplied us with reasons to care about its characters — even the deranged villain, as his insidious inspiration seems admirably disgusting when compared to the blasé attitudes of most filmic psychopaths. What more does one want from such a thriller other than a pathos that helps us care what happens to whom? With that in mind, “The Call” boasts better than average reception.