Was not expecting to enjoy The Call. Was not expecting to enjoy The Call at all. The trailer had that late 90’s early 2000’s thriller vibe, the kind of vehicles Ashley Judd’s career used to circle the drain in. A husky voiced serial killer, a plot with so many twists you could ring all the moisture from it and that post Scream slasher iconography that should have died with the original Ghostface. This is the kind of material that you say yes to when the good scripts dry up. For an actress like Halle Berry it’s a confession that you’ve been relegated into the rental bin rubbish, and the climb out of that hole is a long and hard one for any actor to make. So when I actually got round to seeing The Call (depressingly generic title, another bad sign), I was pleasantly surprized to find that it’s a really fun little thrill ride with a great attention to detail.
The Call centres around 911 operator Jordan Turner (Halle Berry). Turner’s attempts at giving a frightened teen advice on how to stay alive during a prowler break in go horribly wrong, so she takes a job teaching trainees, no longer having the confidence to take any calls herself. But her past comes back to haunt her when a call from a kidnap victim (a grown up Abigail Breslin) echoes too closely to the one that made her hang up her headset. No one else has the improvisational skills to sufficiently help the victim survive so she puts the headset back on and goes to work.
You find yourself routing for Jordan’s attempts to get the kidnapped girl found. This is because the film makes a genuine attempt to portray her as a realistic and sympathetic human being. Jordan is a quick thinking and composed professional who is excellent at her job and goes above and beyond for the callers in her charge. She is also empathetic, down to earth and fallible. She makes some quite obvious mistakes (one is what gets her first caller in major trouble) but we forgive her for them because they are totally understandable. The way she makes them on pure instinct makes you think that in her situation, despite all the training in the world, you would do the exact same thing. We don’t think less of her for this, we get closer to her because her imperfections make her more human and relatable.
It’s those moments that show off the great attention to detail that went into the research of this film. It’s filled with moments that provide us with genuine insight to what the job of the average emergency operator could be like under some of the most stressful circumstances. The film opens with a carefully selected variety of some (supposedly) real 911 calls. They are shocking, horrific and do a great job of getting us to sympathise with the people who deal with these calls every day. There’s other moments too such as Jordan’s attempts to get the location of a 911 caller who has no idea where she is and having to record a girls final message to her family that make you wonder why no one else has ever tapped this rich vein of drama to cinematic effect.
Something else that impressed me was the attempt at characterising the villain as a genuinely disturbed serial killer. Far too many films like these have their villain as something akin to a psychic superman. Always five steps ahead of the authorities, always knows exactly what the hero will do even if the hero doesn’t know they’ll do it yet. A trope used by lazy writers who can’t think of legit reasons to keep the action going so they give their antagonist Hannibal Lecter levels of intelligence and make it the excuse for why he always knows how to evade capture even in the most dire of circumstances.
The villain in The Call on the other hand is a man more like what sociopaths are in real life. Unstable, vulnerable, an emotional wreck compelled to complete his delusional ritual even if it means his fate. He abhors any violence committed outside his mental comfort zone, keeping his paradoxical self-image as a decent man in tact as best he can with slowly diminishing results. Throughout the film he is falling apart at the seams, stumbling his way through the trials Jordan puts in his way. The film makes no bones about his continued evasion of capture as a run of dumb luck, the kind we read about in the papers every day for real live cases. He’s played excellently by an unknown called Michael Eklund, his character is constantly trying to keep it together but Eklund’s performance has enough nuance to show the cracks in the killers façade without making them too obvious.
Unfortunately the film gathers so much momentum by the end it doesn’t know what to do with it. As the film has been presented to you via Jordan’s eyes it feels it is with Jordan we must remain. Even though the film has made it explicitly clear to us that it is the emergency operator’s job to hang up the phone when the police arrive, that they get no closure for any of their encounters no matter how harrowing, the film decides it has invested too much into Jordan’s participation in this event to suddenly leave her hanging. The capture of this madman must go forth and it must do so with her in the driver’s seat.
It’s a real shame because up until that point the film was doing such a good job of never going too far overboard with its more dramatic elements and is entertaining enough to ensure we never question them. But when the 911 operator can find the killers lair when a whole team of forensic investigators can’t the balance in your mind tips. So once you start questioning the absurdity of that moment its too late to stop the gears turning and soon the whole plot is fit for scrutiny. The fact she even attempts to find the killer on her own is such a typical Hollywoodism the film feels like it is throwing all the good will you afforded it back in your face. There’s also a twist at the very end that is so inconsistent with what we know about the characters and is put to us so abruptly you can’t help but think that the film would have been better off if it finished twenty minutes previously.
The call is an engaging thriller made by smart people who understand enough of what makes a good film to take a mostly successful swing at it. If only those intentions had remained with them the entire length of the film instead of being put to rest early, this could have been the thriller of the year.