What would happen if a movie studio ripped off the plot of “Taken,” doused it in the sensibilities of the “Saw” franchise, and added some elements of “Psycho” for good measure? Likely something very close to “The Call.” Directed by Brad Anderson, the film never knows exactly to do with itself, drowning itself in its indecision over being either a hard-hitting, albeit derivative, thriller or a gruesome, tasteless horror film. By overextending beyond either genre’s range, “The Call” confuses, and the final result offsets any of the film’s redeeming qualities.
Confident and skilled at her job as a 911 operator, Jordan Turner (Halle Berry) unexpectedly botches a call, leading to the kidnapping and murder of a young girl, leaving the heroine shaken and emotionally compromised. Relegated to a teaching role, Turner is sucked back into the 911 call center when another teenager, Casey Welson (Abigail Breslin), is kidnapped by the same man, Michael Foster (Michael Eklund). What begins is a cat-and-mouse chase as Turner tries to save this girl, as she was unable to do for Foster’s previous victim.
The main thing keeping the film afloat is the strong acting and chemistry between Breslin and Berry. Breslin of “Little Miss Sunshine” fame shows her evolution from a child star to a very respectable actress. In a twisted way, “The Call” is a coming of age story for Casey, who transitions from a shrinking violet who is afraid to curse to a resilient woman hungry for her independence and freedom from her captor. Breslin is able to pace this development organically through her wide breadth of emotions, which progress from fear to frustration and ultimately to hope.
“We are Capricorns. We are fighters,” says Jordan to Casey, succinctly summing up the the dynamic between the two characters. Through their interactions with one another, both characters are able to develop in a smooth, believable fashion. Buzzing beneath their exteriors is a quiet strength that elevates the characters from simply being victims and stereotypes. Acting as both a surrogate mother and sister to Casey, Berry’s Jordan is able to elicit compassion, making the plot line more palatable to the audience. Although their interaction takes place primarily through the sonic airways of a prepaid phone as Jordan directs Casey on how to escape, it is a testament to the actresses’ talent that they are able to capture the feelings of desperation and mutual dependence that serves as the film’s emotional backbone. It is ironic, then, that it is when Berry leaves the confines of her desk and begins sharing scenes with Breslin that the film falters.
The movie, despite its strong acting, is let down by its final act, which is devoid of intelligence and in opposition to the rest of the film. The middle sequence, which takes place primarily on the streets as Casey attempts to escape the confines of Foster’s car’s trunk, feels like a longer preview to a much better, smarter film. These scenes seem like pieces of a more sophisticated thriller, fraught with twists and turns. The sequence feels confused and frustrated at the sudden momentum break when Jordan decides to investigate the crime on her own terms and drops her iPhone down the dark pit in the ground that leads to the almost comically cliché lair of Foster. What ensue are scenes that would be more at home in a trashy, low-budget horror film—a scalping, back-and-forth tussling between Foster and Jordan, and a few gratuitous displays of gore. This would all be fine if this were the type of film that was projected in the first hour, but instead the film blindsides with a sudden shift in tone and pacing.
The pitfalls of the screenplay are further accentuated by Anderson’s uneven directing. There are some magnificent moments of sleekness and polish that give a glimpse of a different film that seems to have changed course during its development. The film opens with the aesthetically pleasing bird’s-eye view of the city at night. In the background is the noise of multiple 911 calls that eventually meld into one noise of static. The result is engaging and draws the audience into the world of a 911 emergency center. Many times, though, Anderson indulges in one too many freeze frames and long shots towards the end, which feels incongruous with the first half of the film.
In many ways, “The Call” would be greatly improved by shaving off the last 20 minutes. There is no question that the movie aims to be a popcorn-munching blockbuster. However, it is instead a strange tango between a serious drama and gritty horror film that leaves a bad taste in the mouth and a vague, unsettling feeling of what could have been.
—Staff writer Neha Mehrotra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.