“The Call” Rings In Good Suspense

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LOGO“9-1-1. What is your emergency?”

How many times have you heard these three numbers and four words uttered in films or on television shows? Of course the correct answer is countless. But they are particularly significant in “The Call,” an intriguingly entertaining and tautly suspenseful new thriller starring Academy Award-winner Halle Berry, because the film is set in the emergency call center for the Los Angeles Police Department.

Jordan Turner (Berry) is a mainstay emergency dispatcher in what LAPD insiders refer to as “The Hive,” the area where all the “worker bees” aka emergency dispatchers take calls placed by people seeking help for everything from attempted murder to intruders to heart attacks to bats in the house. As we watch her handle calls, it is immediately evident that she’s very proficient in what she does and possesses the requisite ability to make instantaneous decisions. Unfortunately however, Jordan is human, and human beings make mistakes.

Jordan has recently come back from a break when a call comes in that will change her life. She has just settled herself into the chair in front of her station when her phone line lights up, and she barely has time to say, “9-1-1. What is your emergency?” The caller is a frantic teenager named Leah Templeton (Evie Thompson), who says someone is trying to break into her house. Jordan effectively helps her hide from the intruder, and it looks as if the caller will be safe. But then Jordan commits an egregious mistake that violates all her training, and the resulting tragedy makes Jordan resign as a dispatcher and become a trainer for new operators.

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The film moves ahead three months, and we now join Jordan as she is teaching new employees how to work in “The Hive.” When one of the trainees asks a question, Jordon offers the following advice: “The most important thing to remember about this job is this: Stay emotionally detached. Don’t get too involved in your PR’s (person reporting) crisis, and never ever make promises because you can’t keep them.”

And to emphasize how important their job is, she says, “If you’re wondering why security is so tight, that’s because we’re the ears and eyes of the whole city. We’re the link between every human crisis and every first responder, fire and police departments. If The Hive goes down, this whole city goes dark.”

Jordan is just wrapping up her tour and training session when one of the operators takes a call that she begins to have difficulty handling. As fate would have it, Jordan is the only one available to help out, and as she takes over, she learns that the caller is Casey Welson (Abigail Breslin), another teenager who has been abducted and is in the trunk of the kidnapper’s car. As Jordan continues to talk with the Casey, she becomes convinced that the abductor is the same nut with whom she had been involved three months ago when disaster struck in the Leah Templeton case. From this point on, the film becomes an incredibly tense game of cat and mouse combined with a race against the clock to identify the whacko and save Casey’s life.

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Under the direction of Brad Anderson (“The Machinist”), “The Call” is an effective and entertaining thriller that effectively establishes and sustains plenty of suspense because after Casey connects with Jordan on the phone, the film pretty much proceeds in real time. This serves to give the film a nice sense of urgency, and with the scenes alternating between those at the call center and the ones of Casey in the clutches of the demented kidnapper, the tension becomes almost unbearable. In the film’s production notes, Anderson explained what aroused his interest in making the film.

“I read the script, and the novelty of the story and the world it depicted attracted me to the project. 911 calls have always fascinated me. We hear the calls but never really know what goes into the call. We only get bits and pieces. This film will answer a lot of those questions.

“Most of the story takes place in the course of one day, a couple of hours. It’s almost kind of a real-time type scenario and it’s very contained, literally contained. I mean, much of the action occurs at the call center, and in the trunk of a car. I was sort of interested in the idea of how to tell a story, dramatically and visually and cinematically, in such a small space. It posed a lot of challenges, but that was part of the draw for me, as well.”

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The major key to the film’s effectiveness is Berry’s excellent portrayal of Jordan. The actress is particularly gifted at communicating her thoughts, emotions, and feelings with her eyes, and as Jordan talks to Casey, you can see the fear and intensity on her face. In the production notes, Berry explained what she liked about doing the film and how she enjoyed meeting actual 911 operators as she prepared for the role.

“I love this genre of film. I love to be a little bit scared, but also [films with] a cerebral content to it, as well. Jordan is at the top of her game. She’s established in her job. She’s one of the best operators in the Hive, which is what the 911 center is called in our movie. She’s a happy girl, but then things happen and she starts on a different journey, a life-changing experience.

“I’ve always wondered who these people are and what they look like. And I think that’s one of the elements that makes this movie interesting, because everybody says, ‘Who are those people? What kind of training do they have, and how do they stay so calm under such pressure?’ So it’s been kind of nice to put a face to all these people that do this job.”

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Watching the activity in The Hive and seeing the pressure the operators are constantly subjected to was a real education for me. I don’t know why anyone would want the job, but those who do this kind of work certainly deserve plenty of respect and admiration.

Despite the fact that Breslin spends much of the film imprisoned in the dark trunk of a car, she conveys her character’s panic and fear very well, and when we finally do get a more thorough glimpse of her character, she succeeds in making us share in Casey’s nightmare.

Now the villain in the film is a guy named Michael Foster (Michael Eklund), and although he certainly imbues his character with the necessary weirdness for this movie, Eklund’s role presented the film’s main weakness for me. In the first place, we don’t see a whole log of him during the film, but more importantly we don’t get enough information to explain what turned him from an ordinary guy into a sadistic serial killer. Yes, we can figure out his motivation, but it is not developed fully enough, and while this wasn’t enough to spoil the movie, it definitely prevented it from being a truly classic thriller.

Taking everything into consideration, I have decided to work out a formula for arriving at this film’s final score. Let’s take the number 911 and subtract the last two numbers from the first one leaving the film at a respectable seven. The movie definitely is worth seeing, and if you choose to do so and don’t agree with my final assessment of it, you make the call.

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