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Non-Review Review: The Call

The Call is one-half knock-off of the underseen and underrated Cellular, a delightfully pulpy high-concept thriller which perhaps felt a little bit too similar to Phone Booth. The Call is also one-half knock-off of Silence of the Lambs, with the second half of the film in particular feeling like one of those psycho killer thrillers that were oh-so-popular in the mid- to late-nineties, but which became less popular in the post-CSI era. The Call has a delightfully ropey central premise, a high-concept for the mobile age, straining all manner of credibility and suspension of disbelief.

However, the problem lies in the execution. The Call wallows in heightened melodrama, struggling to sustain its central premise by trying to make us “feel” for the central characters in the most coy and manipulative of manners. Director Brad Anderson’s intrusive style doesn’t help matters too, seemingly unsure whether he’s making an action movie, a psychological horror or a high-concept thriller, and so instead tries to mash the three genres together with limited success.

Holding the line...

Holding the line…

The story hook at the centre of The Call isn’t a bad one. Halle Berry plays a seasoned 911 operator who receives a phone call from a teenager during a home invasion. Making a simple mistake, our central character accidentally costs the young girl her life. As a result, our lead retires to a teaching position, safely away from potential field work. Inevitably, our killer strikes again, putting our trusty 911 operator back in the hot seat and offering her a chance at redemption and an opportunity to redeem herself by saving the killer’s current victim.

It’s not a bad premise, even if the logic seems a little circumspect. After all, given the size of 911 switchboards, it seems unlikely that our operator would come in contact with another victim of the same killer so soon, especially when she is not working the floor. All of it feels a little contrived, as the film struggles to keep the basic premise going and the tension mounting as our killer absconds with his teenage abductee, with our trusty operator holding the line and trying to navigate the crisis.

Cut to the chase...

Cut to the chase…

There’s a lot of potential there. There’s something to be said about having a life dangling over a phone line, and trying to solve a crime (and catch a killer) from an unorthodox position. The Call really feels like its premise might lend itself to a more experimental approach – to put us in the same position as the operator by refusing to cut to the young girl trapped in a car boot, for example, or to keep the focus on the law enforcement with the killer remaining entirely unknowable, with one mobile phone call serving as our only anchor to the crime.

Instead, The Call is disappointingly pedestrian. Rather than revelling in its admittedly gimmicky set-up, the film immediately tries to make that hook fit with a far more conventional structure. So we get action sequences and slow motion, and plot points designed simply to extend out the movie. The wonderful Michael Imperioli, for example, pops up in an interesting supporting role that feels completely superfluous. His use is intriguing precisely because it winds up being so pointless.

Digging up the past...

Digging up the past…

Similarly, the movie can’t seem to wait to get outside the call centre, and to move our heroine to the heart of the action. It feels like a betrayal of what had been a fairly unique set-up, instead pushing the film towards a climax we’ve seen far too often. Indeed, one of the biggest problems with The Call is the speed with which it abandons its initial premise in order to evolve into something a lot less exciting or compelling.

Suddenly, the film is no longer just an action film masquerading as a high-concept thriller, it becomes a cookie-cutter serial killer film laying on tired imagery. Of course our killer has a perverse and disturbing back story to explain his actions. Of course he has a delightfully sordid modus operandi. Of course his evil ends involve stripping the teenage heroine down to her bra and a location that fits all manner of familiar serial killer tropes.

Braking (lights) point...

Braking (lights) point…

Indeed, the movie ends with what might charitably be described as a “twist”, but one that feels somewhat mean-spirited, as if we’ve shifted into classic horror movie territory completely. The ending fits the mood of the last twenty-minutes quite well, but it makes no sense in the context of the movie as a whole. Not to mention the way that it casually and unquestioningly changes everything we know about two of the main characters.

Still, while this constant shifting and inability to decide what it wants to be is at the heart of the movie’s problems, it’s also worth noting that there are other issues with The Call. Most notably is the fact that the movie tries to ratchet up tension by forcing the performers to ham it up repeatedly. Part of the joy of a suspense film is watching the characters come slowly undone, as the water around them begins to heat up. They simmer, and then they boil – with everything coming to a head at the worst possible moment.

Dial it down...

Dial it down…

The Call misjudges the emotional arc of its central characters. Within ten minutes, every character is on the edge of a nervous breakdown. By the time our lead character has been coaxed back to the phone about half-an-hour into the film, it seems like she has had several breakdowns. Don’t get me wrong – dealing with that kind of stress undoubtedly takes its toll. However, The Call would work better if it structured these emotional character moments, building them towards something, rather than throwing them in whenever there’s a dull moment.

The victim of a thankless script, there’s little Halle Berry can do to salvage her role, and she’s stuck playing a central character who struggles to reach a second dimension. The rest of the film is inhabited more by archetypes than by characters, to the point where our serial killer finishes the film the most developed member of the cast – the one with the most explored psychology and back story.

Um... I'm not sure that's what they mean by "rest room"...

Um… I’m not sure that’s what they mean by “rest room”…

The Call just gets hung up trying to figure out what it’s supposed to be doing, and so can’t help but feel a little phoned in.

3 Responses

  1. I should have taken your advice about Elysium and am sorry. I have avoided this one.

    • Elysium was… interesting, I think – if a little too on the nose. I could see what the film was getting at, but using a sick kid and saving the world through a process of “find and replace” feels a little superficial at best for a movie that began as this sort of bleak and harrowing exploration of class division.

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