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The Call

March 7, 2013
The Call

It’s not that The Call is a bad movie. Indeed, it’s been cut-and-pasted from lots of good suspense films, some as brutally violent as this one turns out. It’s more that Thirteen Ghosts screenwriter Richard D’Ovidio doesn’t seem to know why those films used these pieces. Brad Anderson does his best to direct, and the resulting story has its moments, but it’s only ever good in isolation and it falls apart under the slightest scrutiny.

As jobs go, a 9-1-1 dispatch operator would seem to be tailor-made for a suspense thriller. They interact with the same range of situations as the police, and also with shaky or incomplete information. While detectives piece together a scene after the fact, the dispatcher is there in the moment of crisis. But that presence extends only as far as listening over a phone line, and dispatchers can’t directly intervene. Worse yet, they don’t usually know the outcome of their calls; once the police, firefighters, or paramedics show up, the dispatcher is on to her next call.

The major exception is when a caller goes on to make the news in some splashy way, which doesn’t happen all that often for a happy ending. And that’s just the situation Jordan (Halle Berry) found herself in: a teenage girl called to report a man breaking into her house, things went bad, and the girl was kidnapped and later found dead. Six months later, Jordan is an instructor, not taking any calls herself as she deals with her post-traumatic stress. Until, that is, an inexperienced dispatcher receives a disturbing and difficult call of her own: another teenager, Casey (Abigail Breslin), is on a pre-paid mobile phone, locked in the trunk of a car by an unknown man (Michael Eklund).

The man turns out to be pretty seriously disturbed, which should surprise exactly no one, and Eklund gives an appropriately overwrought “psycho killer” performance that draws heavily from the script’s obvious sources: Norman Bates from Psycho and Jame Gumb from The Silence of the Lambs. Of course, both of these characters were inspired by Ed Gein, but this character seems pretty clearly mediated by the others.

Of course the call is eventually dropped, which leads to a problem: as has been pointed out, 9-1-1 dispatchers don’t generally hear the outcome of their calls, but obviously we need a dramatic confrontation between Berry and Eklund. D’Ovidio handles this by making it personal to Jordan, since it turns out the kidnapper is the same one from the previous call she’d botched six months ago. Evidently spending ninety emotionally-intense minutes on the phone with a girl in danger isn’t enough of an excuse, so we need an improbable coincidence thrown into the mix. It does also serve to help establish the kidnapper’s pattern — in a detective movie this would be a known pattern — but the fact that this sort of thing must be hacked together kind of points to the idea that a story centered on a dispatcher has to do something even more unusual.

The movie’s through-line doesn’t really work from scene to scene, but the individual parts can usually get the job done. Anderson shoots most of Breslin’s scenes in brutal close-ups — even when she’s out of the confined trunk — which makes for some interesting and unconventional visuals. But the scenes themselves give us cartoonishly exaggerated violence, which never feels like it really belongs in the same film as the tense proceduralism of trying to determine where, exactly, Casey is when all they have to go on is a phone call. It’s the sort of shocking interruption that breaks up the tone of the story and shakes the audience out of the suspense the rest of the movie is trying to build. And that’s the sort of thing that leads to an audience laughing heartily as a grown man punches a screaming, frightened girl in the face.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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