Friday, March 15, 2013

In Theaters: THE CALL (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by Brad Anderson.  Written by Richard D'Ovidio.  Cast: Halle Berry, Abigail Breslin, Morris Chestnut, Michael Imperioli, Michael Eklund, David Otunga, Roma Maffia, Justina Machado, Denise Dowse, Jose Zuniga. (R, 94 mins)

It's always frustrating to watch a film that's solidly, briskly, and efficiently doing its job only to have one illogical decision snowball into a calamitous chain reaction that causes the entire thing to crash and burn.  That's exactly what happens with THE CALL, a high-concept suspense outing from director Brad Anderson, a long-ago indie darling (1998's NEXT STOP, WONDERLAND, 2000's HAPPY ACCIDENTS) whose 2001 cult classic SESSION 9 led to him finding his niche with thrillers like 2004's THE MACHINIST and 2008's TRANSSIBERIAN.  Anderson mostly does hired-gun TV work these days (FRINGE, TREME, BOARDWALK EMPIRE, THE KILLING), and his last film, 2011's VANISHING ON 7TH STREET, was easily his worst, but for about 2/3 of its running time, THE CALL finds Anderson in fine form and reinforces the idea that genre films of this sort are indeed his true calling.  But around 65 minutes in, THE CALL makes a fatal mistake from which it never recovers. 

Overcoming an initially distracting wig, Halle Berry delivers a strong performance as Jordan, a veteran 911 operator at "The Hive," the centralized complex for Los Angeles emergency services and first responders (sample clumsy exposition from wide-eyed trainee: "Why do they call it 'The Hive?'").  In the opening sequence, Jordan is on the line with a teenage girl who's home alone and trying to hide from an intruder when a brief lapse in judgment ultimately leads to the girl's death.  Six months later, still shattered by the mistake (the girl was hiding, the call was disconnected and the intruder was about to give up and leave, but Jordan hitting "redial" inadvertantly alerted him to the girl's location) and unable to forgive herself, Jordan pops Diazepam and works as an operator trainer behind the scenes.  She's forced back onto the console when a 911 call comes in from 16-year-old Casey (Abigail Breslin), who's been abducted from a mall parking garage by a mystery man (DTV fixture and Uwe Boll vet Michael Eklund) and stashed in the trunk of his car.  It's here where THE CALL really starts cooking, as Anderson and screenwriter Richard D'Ovidio focus on Jordan digging deep within herself to find the confidence to talk Casey through what's happening to her and using her wits to help her alert other motorists to her plight. Since Casey is using the disposable phone left behind at the mall by a friend who had to leave, the police can't pinpoint its location.  Jordan instructs Casey to kick out the taillight and stick her arm out of it and wave.  When Casey finds some paint cans in the trunk, Jordan tells her to pour the paint out of the taillight opening.  At a stoplight, a motorist in the next lane (Michael Imperioli) gets a funny feeling about the missing taillight and the paint and when he tries to intervene, he ends up in the trunk of his own car with Casey when the kidnapper realizes the police are on to his vehicle and switches cars.

THE CALL is moving along at a nice clip and going just swell when it suddenly gets an urge to fix what isn't broken.  It's working because the tension builds by keeping its characters interacting while trapping them in their own confined, claustrophobic spaces (Casey in the trunk, Jordan at her desk).  But when Jordan ends up talking to the kidnapper and realizes that it's the same perp who killed the teenage girl six months earlier, THE CALL makes the conscious decision to shit the bed by having Jordan leave "The Hive" and take this 911 call...personal.  When the cops--including Jordan's understanding, supportive boyfriend (Morris Chestnut)--get the kidnapper's identity from a partial print on a shattered chloroform bottle near his abandoned car, they visit his house and his clueless wife (Justina Machado) and find the motive for his behavior and his possible location in a photo.  When a trip to that location turns out to be a dead end (they don't even turn the lights on--Chestnut walks in, looks around, and says "This is a dead end," and leaves), Jordan is unconvinced and drives out there herself.  At 2:30 am.  With just a flashlight.

And with that, what was a somewhat implausible but thoroughly entertaining, crackling thriller with strong, believable characters (it's also great fun watching Eklund go from cool and confident to a twitchy, blubbering mess as his day encounters one unforeseen obstacle after another) abruptly turns into a trashy, exploitative horror film with Eklund's psycho having a secret underground torture bunker where he scalps his victims and makes out with a mannequin head and touches himself because, after his turns as a post-apocalyptic cannibal in the atrocious THE DAY and a post-apocalyptic necrophile rapist in the loathsome THE DIVIDE, this is apparently what Michael Eklund does.  Of course, Jordan discovers the subterrenean SAW/HOSTEL death dungeon and decides to rescue Casey, who's strapped to a table and stripped down to her bra for no other reason than to show us that, yes, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE is growing up and now has ample cleavage.  The jarring shift in tone is a tacky metamorphosis that ruins an otherwise exemplary nailbiter and would reek of studio exec interference and reshoots were it not for the film's last shot of Berry's Jordan pulling a Roy Scheider and using Eklund's catchphrase ("It's already done") against him.  The last third of the film is a train wreck (I haven't even mentioned Casey's eye injury being badly CGI'd; really, everything has to be CGI'd now?  We can't even apply practical makeup and a small prosthetic to simulate a swollen eye anymore?  I'm just glad ROCKY and RAGING BULL were made when they were), but the final five minutes in particular, are so utterly, stupidly senseless and at odds with everything we've seen and learned about these characters that when the closing credits roll, you just sit there slack-jawed at the implosion of what was a pretty good movie.  At one point during their phone conversation, Jordan promises Casey that she'll get her through this and that they'll go see a movie together that weekend.  What a nice, believable, well-rounded ending that would've been.  Instead, apropos of nothing and against all established logic, it culminates in vigilante vengeance, a cheap laugh, and red meat tossed out to the audience. 

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