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Director Brad Anderson refuses to be pigeonholed. After making several under-the-radar romantic comedies, Anderson shot Session 9, a creepy psychological thriller set in an abandoned mental hospital, before turning heads with The Machinist, which is most remembered for Christian Bale's shocking weight loss. His next project was Transsiberian, an Agatha Christie-esque tale of deception and murder aboard a China to Moscow train. His latest film, The Call, highlights what has to be an incredibly taxing job: 911 operator in Los Angeles. Enjoyably free from delusions of grandeur, The Call sticks tightly to heroine Halle Berry as she fights to save Abigail Breslin from a serial killer's trunk. A lesser director and actress may have been tempted to treat The Call with undeserved reverence. Instead, Anderson crafts a refreshingly straightforward pulp thriller more concerned with Berry's performance under pressure than the killer's next move.
Typically reliable 911 operator Jordan Turner (Berry) is shaken after a mistake leads to the murder of a young woman. Turner retires her headset to train new L.A.P.D. recruits until a rookie operator needs help with a high-stakes call. Teenager Casey Welson phones "the hive" in a panic; she has been abducted and is stuck in the trunk of a Toyota Camry travelling on one of L.A.'s many highways. Welson's cries for help trigger a multi-department manhunt with Turner at the helm. As Casey fights to stay calm and alive, Turner goes to work, fishing for any information that may help police (including Morris Chestnut and David Otunga) locate the Camry and its driver.
I wasn't particularly interested in seeing The Call based on its first theatrical trailer. Berry is a fine actress, but the film seemed poised to trigger a rowdy audience's laughter with unintentionally campy drama. I decided to catch a matinee after learning Anderson was the man behind the camera and ended up really enjoying The Call. The woman in peril/rescuer in pursuit storyline is nothing new, but focusing on a 911 operator's involvement in an abduction rather police work is something new. Anderson, who shot in the real Los Angeles 911 call center, reveals the efficiently managed chaos caused by the incoming calls, which range from the ramblings of an affable drunk to medical emergencies to the terror of people caught in violent situations. Critical calls like Welson's demand skillful operators like Berry's fictional character, who has to engage her panicked caller while simultaneously feeding information to law enforcement.
As a ticking-clock thriller, The Call works fairly well. Both Berry and Breslin command the audience's attention - Berry from her desk chair and Breslin from the dark, claustrophobic confines of her potential coffin. Breslin is believable as a teenager and tows the line between appropriately hysterical and quick-witted. It's hard to believe this is the same girl from Little Miss Sunshine. The killer's (Michael Eklund) face is revealed early on, and The Call later explores his backstory and potential motivations. These explorations are close to surface level but effectively unnerving. I like that Anderson and company made this an R-rated thriller. The Call is not excessively gory or profane, but the rating allows for some disturbing content and related intensity likely not permitted with a lower rating.
If ever The Call achieves the over-the-top, generic pseudo-suspense promised by its initial marketing it is during the final act. When Anderson allows Berry to leave her command post, The Call becomes a formulaic, somewhat unbelievable cat-and-mouse chase thriller that is less successful than the previous reels. This is also when Anderson leans heavily on distorted images and rough editing, neither of which is particularly effective. The film's final seconds are also troubling, not for their implications of vigilante justice but because they are tonally inconsistent with everything that came before. Even so, The Call mostly succeeds in its straightforward, economic approach to thrills thanks to Berry, Breslin and Anderson's direction.
Sony's 1.85:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image of the Arri Alexa-shot digital source is expectedly excellent. Anderson does soften the focus at times, but the transfer is nicely detailed throughout, displaying impressive depth in wide shots and good texture in close-ups. Skin tones are accurate and the colors of the sunbaked California freeways and skyline are nicely saturated. Black levels are decent if a little anemic, and I noticed only a minor spike in digital noise in some of the later, dimly lit scenes.
The various sounds of the 911 call center surround the viewer thanks to an effective 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. The mix makes good use of the surround speakers for the near-constant ambient effects, and, when The Call switches to a chase thriller, the action effects are supported by an aggressive subwoofer. Dialogue is crisp and balanced appropriately with effects and score, and the popular-music soundtrack selections fill the entire sound field. A French 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track and an English DVS track are provided, as are English, English SDH, Danish, Finnish, French, Norwegian, Spanish and Swedish subtitles.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
Sony releases The Call in "combo pack" format that includes the Blu-ray, a DVD copy of the film and a code to redeem an UltraViolet digital copy. The discs are housed in an Elite Blu-ray case with two-sided artwork, and the case is wrapped in a slipcover. The extras provide an economical look at the production: Emergency Procedures (14:53/HD) is a concise making-of with interviews and behind-the-scenes footage, and Inside the Stunts (6:56/HD) reveals how the filmmakers accomplished some of the film's more intense moments. Set Tour of the Call Center (4:51/HD) and Set Tour of the Lair (3:27/HD) offer exactly what they promise. There's also a Filmmaker and Cast Commentary, in which Anderson, Berry and Breslin participate, and a brief Alternate Ending (0:52/HD) that basically extends the final scene by a few seconds. The extras wrap up with some Deleted and Extended Scenes (4:22/HD) and bizarre Michael Eklund Audition Footage (7:48/HD) that's even more disturbing than his character in the film.
I doubt The Call will go down in history as a particularly memorable film, but it does provide effectively straightforward thrills. Director Brad Anderson shoots a confident B-movie with Halle Berry as a Los Angeles 911 operator struggling to save Abigail Breslin from the clutches of a killer. The Call moves quickly and never overstays its welcome. Recommended.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.