The Call is my first true thriller/suspense film I have watched since Panic Room. I rarely watch them because they rarely provide the 'thrill' or 'suspense' the namesake suggests. Paranormal Activity being the least effective of these, and perhaps Stephen King's stories-made-to-film being the more effective ones within the genre for me. Nonetheless I haven't checked out a thriller for a while so I decided to give this one a try in place of tired alternatives currently showing in theatres near me.

The premise? Jordan is a 911 operator who was traumatized by directly witnessing her failure to help one of her callers out of trouble, and when the same person attacks again, she makes it a personal mission to stop him from getting away.

For a film that claims itself to be a suspense, only near the end did I find myself occasionally at the edge of my seat. Rather, I think The Call is better described as high-stakes mystery solving. There are elements in this film that are quite baked, lack of character design, and mostly weak ideas recycled from other films and even television shows (in particular Dexter), but the execution of some scenes and Halle Berry's performance fully justify for the rest of the film.

The creative use of camera focus, the film's heavy investment in Halle Berry's character and sparing use of one-liners pushes this film into the realm of high-concept films, but most audience would probably be deprived of these subtleties due to the rapid editing techniques chosen to supposedly create tension, but really just interrupts us holding our breaths. It also offers an unclear or unconvincing message which I couldn't really take home.

Anyway. For thriller/suspense addicts, this is a lighter but zesty choice for a night screening at home, but I wouldn't recommend to see in the theater as its suspense is not grounded in sound effects or gruesome imagery, which is unfortunate in my opinion.

6.0 / 10.0

Halle Berry

Basically everything good and bad about this film can be summarised by looking the character of Jordan. The opening sequence of this film shows what happened 6 months earlier, and quickly establishes the personality, character and role of Jordan in her work environment. It introduces a whole host of character we can recognise by their stereotype relationships to the main character (friend-colleague, boss, boyfriend, boyfriend's friends, etc). These characters are glossed over so quickly and given such a placid script it is hard to care about them. Perhaps that was the director's intention but that's an awfully large gamble that we like the main character.

And this type of gambling pops up again with the next victim Casey (Abigail Breslin) who we (and Jordan) follow through the rest of movie after the time jump, just as we were given seemingly unrelated scenes of her going girlfriend-shopping, and is suddenly launched into a main character role after being kidnapped. But since our brains hadn't decided if we needed to pay attention to her up till that point, it is hard to recall her face and personality when it's so dark in the trunk. And again, her personality didn't matter except for her transition from the "I'm afraid, help me!" to the "I'm a strong woman capable of defending myself", which only works in a few moments.

Jordan is also the lone wolf protagonist in this film. This is the character whom, when the system fails, must abandon the system to solve the case by some other rogue means. Hollywood action films love exploiting this template till we're tired of it, but here it actually works for the better instead of making me want to rub my face with sandpaper. The ending does paint a few darker streaks in her character which I enjoyed, as it shows how ethically ambiguous people in the police force can be. They are humans firsts and public servants second. And judging by the tone of the ending, it almost feels like the intention was to leave it an open-ended question of whether the girls had the right or moral justification to leave him for dead like that.

One of the big opportunity this film discards was fully exploring the psyche of the serial kidnapper/killer Michael (Michael Eklund), and giving him and Jordan a few more lines. The film leaves enough clues about his character/motivations by trailing the police officers who raid his family's house, and by showing his 'process' with his victims. But these scenes passes so quickly, I think the screenwriter's only interest was to create an artificial path for Jordan to be able to sneak in and save Casey.

The locus of this film is really Jordan, and where she is written well, the film works, and where aspects of her are overlooked or poorly scripted, the film falls apart and sucks us out of the story. Casey doesn't leave an impression, while the serial killer does, and Jordan's boss is perhaps the only other person that does as well, mostly because for half the film it's hard to gauge where on the good guys/bad guys spectrum she sits on, and her personal relationship with Jordon. Her professionalism in spite of the situation is surprisingly compelling, and I was surprised they just cast her aside after she sends Jordon home. No commentary or deeper message?

Disproportionate suspense

As I mentioned, I don't watch a lot of suspense/thriller films, so I may be a bit harsh in how I view these films and perhaps not understand why they exist. I find that people who watch different genres of films tend to be filling some sort of philosophical gap in their life. Those who like comedy tend to have unhappiness or disappointments in their own lives. Those who like action tend to have overprotective/restrictive parents, and those who like fantasy/sci-fi genres tend to have social anxiety.

Of course this is a generalisation that no longer applies when put in context, but my issue is that I don't know what 'stereotype' of people tend to watch thrillers/suspense. I have friends of all sorts that enjoy Silence of the Lamb, so it's really hard to pin down what part of our emotions or life does it compensate for. Do people just like subjecting themselves to tension because their lives are too relaxed and easygoing? Does it help us mold our own survival instincts?

In any case, this film does provide the suspense they want, but in an uneven distribution across the film. There are like 3-4 tense moments almost consecutively, not allowing the audience to become satisfied, and then 20 minutes goes by without another tense scene because it's just 'clockwork CSI stuff happening' but not 'something horrible might happen any moment'. So it doesn't cue the audience to get suspenseful; it just kind of throws it at you before you're ready, leaving you to wonder "was I meant to be tense just then?"

6 months of guilt

A lot of what happened to Jordan between in the 6 months time jumps are summarized by Anxiety meds in her locker and her retasking as an trainer instead of an operator. All we are shown is that she is still on the road to healing and self-forgiveness. It is effective in itself, and her redemptive arc isn't contrived, but something still feels disconnected.

On the way home I did think about it and it finally hit me; her redemption is at the cost of being a role model protagonist. It rings closer to home when I thought about the ending to Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. In that film after seeing how Bruce grows and embraces his avatar to be a symbol for justice, we expect him to make a righteous decision when fighting Ra's al Ghul on the train. But no, he decides to just let Ra's die even though he could have saved him and handed him to the police force. His "I won't kill you, but I don't have to save you either" was not a neutral stand morally speaking. In fact, he did indirectly kill Ra's since he instructed commissioner Gordon to take down the tracks so the train wouldn't make it to Wayne Tower. So in fact he broke his 'one rule' (The Dark Knight) very early on in his career as Batman. It wasn't even a dilemma, it was simply "something that had to be done and there was no other way I could have done it".

So back to this film. Jordon preaches several principles as a 911 operator to the interns/newbies, including "don't ever make a promise", and "don't get personal". Yet she broke both rules and yet everything worked out well for her and Casey. Where does that take us except nowhere? This type of message which makes us think but provides contradicting signposts and ambiguous conclusions we could draw, is what made the film surreal and hard to take fully seriously. In many ways the world on the 911 operator's side of the conversation did fascinate me, and Brad Anderson (the director) seemed to have done his research when trying to represent the real people in this profession. But with how this story takes a dump on the 911 operator's principles, rules, processes and purpose, all I can say is that they'll have to call me again to clarify what they were trying to say.

Finally, the nitpicks