Though in every other respect an unremarkable Hollywood thriller, Brad Anderson’s The Call is distinguished by one rather audacious aesthetic decision: Opting to shoot the film’s many confined spaces using small, lightweight digital cameras like the 10lb Phantom Flex, Anderson and TV-trained DP Tom Yatsko lean hard on a kind of intrusive, deeply probing extreme close-up rarely seen in a mainstream film, as though the camera had simply been thrown into the action, Leviathan-style, rather than set up to observe it from a safe distance. It’s a novel approach—one that speaks, perhaps inadvertently, to the liberating effect of modern digital capture, where a sense of proximity trumps the need for traditional coverage—that lends entirely rote material a feeling of superficial distinction. This is a commendable strategy, if not an altogether successful one. At its best, The Call’s exaggeratedly close-quarters photography makes it resemble a second-rate Michael Mann film, the camerawork a pale imitation of Dion Beebe’s groundbreaking work on Collateral and Miami Vice. But at its worst, it looks like it was shot in Tom Hooper Vision, much of it fish-eyed and awkwardly craning, the camera shoved into faces and crammed down throats.
For better or worse, little else in the film is quite so notable. The screenplay, co-authored by husband-and-wife team Nicole and Richard D’Ovidio, is, much like the latter’s script for Thir13en Ghosts, an often frustrating combination of cleverness and stupidity, which in conventional-thriller terms at least qualifies as serviceable. The premise all but necessitates ongoing narrative strain: The genre dictates that veteran 911 operator Jordan (Halle Berry) must eventually pursue the sinister murderer in order to rescue the kidnapped teen (Abigail Breslin) she feels sworn to protect, but conceiving realistic circumstances under which this turn of events might believably come about is strictly a fool’s errand. It’s not exactly uncommon for a film with a decidedly B-movie bent to adopt contrivance and convenience as guiding principles, of course, and many of The Call’s less credible twists and turnabouts are warranted for the sake of expected narrative expediency. But as the baffling decisions and idiotic actions begin to stack up, a feeling of disbelief accordingly mounts, until, in a final cat-and-mouse act basically predicated on its characters’ terrible decisions, the whole thing topples over.
Though it’s hardly exemplary, much of The Call’s second act proceeds with ample tension and, more surprisingly, honest-to-goodness wit. Nearly an hour of the film follows Berry’s attempts, over an open 911 line, to talk the recently kidnapped Breslin through an attempt to escape from a locked car trunk, and we spend more time in the confines of a single car than one does in an average Abbas Kiarostami film. To that end, Anderson proves himself a capable hand, finding inventive uses for everything from a kicked-out tail light to a discarded can of paint; though this doesn’t entail much more, visually, than simple cross-cutting between its static and visibly shaken leads, the images have a certain energy and dynamism that keeps the sequence feeling propulsive and exciting. But by the time Berry and Breslin find themselves, after the car has come to a definitive halt, acting out the last half of The Silence of the Lambs, The Call is merely spinning its wheels, and Anderson puts the comparatively bigger spaces of the final lair to far less creative use than he did the considerably more limiting trunk of a car. The worst offense here, however, lies in a nasty and brutish last-minute twist that seems to have been tacked on after studio insistence, an ugly ending which makes so little sense in the context of these characters and the world they inhabit that it can only be attributed to some deep exploitive impulse. In a film rife with bad decisions, this is by far the most disagreeable.