Friday, March 15, 2013

Hold the Phone: THE CALL

I could never be a 911 operator. I don’t have the emotional stamina for the job. On the other end of the switchboard is an unpredictable deluge of human misery, waves of terrified and traumatized callers reporting their lives’ greatest horrors, sometimes inconsequential, sometimes matters of life and death. I have nothing but admiration for those who work calmly and professionally through these calls, sending help to the right locations, expediting responses to emergencies. The modest thriller The Call gets a lot of mileage out of this work environment. Its protagonist, a tough, professional operator played by Halle Berry, answers a call from a teenage girl (Abigail Breslin) who has been attacked and now finds herself trapped in a trunk. Berry can’t get a lock on the location and so together with the girl they work out a way to find clues to the location of the car and the identity of her kidnapper.

The bulk of the film is devoted to this titular call. It’s like the inverse of the unfortunately forgotten 2004 David R. Ellis thriller Cellular, the first movie to really milk the then-newer technology of the cell phone to get nonstop genre chills and spills out of it. That movie had Chris Evans getting a call from a hostage who managed to hotwire a broken telephone to dial a random number. Much fun is made out of moments like a mad scramble for a phone charger, what with having to keep the connection while Evans dashes about trying to get clues and get help for the mystery caller. This time around, the hostage is on the move. In trembling close-ups, we cut between Berry and Breslin, talking through the nerve-wracking scenario. The operator, with little information, tries to gather up what she can and send help to the appropriate spot. One fun trick involves kicking out a taillight and sticking a hand through the hole, hoping that another driver will notice and call in to 911. The sight of a pale arm awkwardly waving through a hole in a dark red trunk is vivid genre imagery.

In terse crosscutting, we follow Berry’s cop boyfriend (Morris Chestnut) as he provides the plot with the necessary role of a protagonist on the move. With information fed to him by Berry, he leads the charge in sending police to and fro, picking up on the trail of breadcrumbs left by the various clues. Director Brad Anderson shoots things with a no-nonsense simplicity that keeps the plot moving along tensely and efficiently. I usually find him to be a director whose films kick up fine mood, but tend to seem awfully undercooked on the level of character and narrative. In films like Session 9 and Vanishing on 7th Street, I find myself wishing that he could push his neo-Twilight Zone narrative tendencies further into abstraction, leaving the pesky clumsiness of his storytelling behind.  In The Call, as in his best film, the icy train-set twister Transsiberian, he has a nice, simple premise to work with, matching mood with action in a way that’s largely satisfying for much of the runtime.

It's too bad that the script by Richard D’Ovidio (his first produced screenplay since the remake of Thirteen Ghosts over a decade ago) has a howler of a climax, a sustained sequence of one character acting outside the law, setting off on a secretive investigation that’s filled with all kinds of reasons to exclaim “Don’t go in there!” “Watch out behind you!” and “What do you think you’re doing?” It’s a particularly icky form of exploitation revenge and a sour note on which to end an otherwise trim and crisp thriller.  It doesn’t help that the more we learn about the kidnapper, the more he seems to be nothing more than a generic creep of the kind you could see on any TV procedural any night of the week. Come to think of it, though The Call is ultimately only a slightly-better-than-mediocre B-movie, it’d have made a fine pilot. (Perhaps not-so-coincidentally, Anderson has done his best work on TV, especially in his handling of 12 episodes of the paranormal investigation procedural Fringe.) Wouldn’t you want to watch a detective series about Halle Berry taking 911 calls and sending Morris Chestnut to investigate? I know I would. There’s even an ideologically interesting hero shot of Berry towards the end of the film, a low angle image that captures an American flag billowing in the background. The filmmakers have ahold of something intriguing with this premise and they come close to pulling it off.

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