The Call is really two movies, and one of them is actually pretty good.
It's the first one, and somewhat the longer (the whole thing comes in at a blissfully contained 94 minutes), and it is about a setting that, to my knowledge, has never been used in a procedural thriller before, which is in retrospect completely ridiculous: the central hub where all 911 calls in the Los Angeles area are received and answered by a small army of dispatchers. The movie calls it "the hive", which may be true or total movie fantasy; the whole damn thing may be movie fantasy for all I know, but this much is certainly the case: in this movie, this dispatch center in all its buzzing, high-tech glory, is a hell of a place to set a crime picture.
Here, Jordan Turner (Halle Berry) is a tough-as-nails lifer who, in the movie's too-long-to-call-it-a-prologue, takes a call from a teenage girl, Leah Templeton (Evie Louise Thompson), who has a prowler (Michael Eklund) in her house; just when Jordan's advice has apparently saved the girl and sent the prowler on her way, the call is dropped and the dispatcher reflexively hits "redial", thus tipping the criminal off that the girl is still in the house and leading to her violent death. Jordan is so unnerved by this, she retires from active duty on the hive floor, staying around as an instructor and troubleshooter, and this is where we find her six months later. Since this is a movie and not a docudrama, she is of course obliged to take One More Call when a particularly complex situation makes one of the newbies freeze up: 15-year-old Casey Welson (Abigail Breslin) is calling from a disposable cell phone in the trunk of a car barreling down a freeway that she can't identify. It's down to Jordan to orchestrate various ingenious schemes to track the car down, which she does with frenzied genius; but of course things are more complex than that, and in what would be no surprise at all even it it wasn't at the core of the film's advertising campaign, the man who kidnapped Casey is the exact same serial killer who killed Leah thanks to Jordan's mistake. Thus giving Jordan a crusade to fight, and not just a case to solve.
At no point is The Call a masterpiece of thriller cinema, the kind that will be breathlessly re-watched and analysed generations hence, but it is very frequently an outstanding work of meat-and-potatoes craftsmanship. After all these years in the wilderness, Berry is in excellent form, providing a fantastically steady anchor for the narrative as a character even when she is busy having a nervous breakdown, and Breslin rounds the corner from delightful child actress to young woman actress with an appealingly workaday version of what amounts to a stock figure (how depressing is it, though, that an Oscar-nominated child star has to resort to playing a serial killer's prey to prove she is growing up?). What really drives the film, though, is not the acting, as unexpectedly sturdy and non-trashy as it turns out to be, but the rip-roaring procedural elements of Richard D'Ovidio's script, as realised by redoubtable director Brad Anderson, proving that great craftsmanship can make even a stock catch-the-killer scenario seem fresh and invigorating. The movie races by, jumping from one beat to the next with increasing momentum throughout, as Casey carries out Jordan's various tricks with a camera crammed right in that trunk next to her, so stuffy you can almost feel the heat and smell the stale air. Meanwhile, the dispatcher prowls around the hive anxiously, all coiled energy and panic being funneled into action, and it's genuinely thrilling, cut to a tempo that makes even the act of pointing at a computer screen the most intense, exciting thing you've ever seen onscreen.
The hive itself is a major reason the film works so well, too, designed by Franco-Giacomo Carbone as a grand arena of movie science that's just glistening with technological gimcrackery, but all of it totally functional and well-conceived; it feels like something out of Ken Adam's neorealist phase, were he to have had one. Part of the greatness of the set lies in the way it's shot: wide and airy but with lots of close-ups, as people cramped around the individual computer driving this plot begin to shut out the background action in a good approximation of the tunnel vision that sets in for Jordan herself.
Rock-solid and totally entertaining; but it is two movies, after all, and the second one goes bad pretty damn fast. There's no one moment where The Call breaks; more like a five minute span where it goes from everything mostly working to everything mostly not. And that shift happens pretty much because the wonderful conceit driving the first part - a woman in a computer bay uses all kinds of modern surveillance tools to fight crime - is thrown out for a hugely conventional "loner goes chasing after the killer in his spooky abandoned cabin in the woods" scenario, that would already be a huge letdown, if not for the attached B-plot, in which Casey is menaced while being chained to various chairs and tables, with the killer dancing about, preparing to scalp her. In short, The Call goes from being a tense procedural to a defanged torture picture, with the scenes of Jordan poking around being so utterly rote and predictable that it's hard even to pay attention as it plonks along the expected notes ("Oh, the photograph of a dead relative... oh, she has to plunge into the dark pit that looks like it's wallpapered with rusty metal... oh, now she's hiding behind the door in his shrine to the dead relative...").
I genuinely can't stand that such a fun piece of generic entertainment collapses so hard, and while nothing about the last two-fifths, or however much, of The Call is acutely "bad", excepting that there's something unmistakably distasteful about the whole "helpless teen girl writhing in a bra, waiting to be killed" formula, particularly when it comes along unexpectedly, it's such a massive disappointment from the opening that it feels worse than it probably is. Certainly, it doesn't help that the film's final ten minutes are weaker yet than everything that went before, and it's an outright disaster that the very last scene is the absolute worst part of the movie, sacrificing character logic and dignity and whatever hard-fought morality had perked up along the way for a cheap, tacky punchline that only serves to make the whole thing more dismal and cynical than it had any conceivable need to be. First impressions are maybe lasting impressions; it is The Call's extreme misfortune that final impressions are the most intense.
Have you helped Tim fight cancer? Donate to the 2015 Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser & Review Auction! The fundraiser ends 18 June, 2015!
And thanks to everyone who has donated so far!
And thanks to everyone who has donated so far!