The American movie business works a certain way. It's by doing quality movies you end up doing horrible ones. Anybody remembers Michael Bay once directed competent inverted-jailbreak film THE ROCK? My point exactly. Brad Anderson directed a string of quality movies over the last decade: THE MACHINIST, TRANSSIBERIAN, the puzzling yet tense VANISHING ON 7TH STREET and personal favorite SESSION 9. The sheer number maybe is unimpressive, but their quality ranged from solid to astonishing. Really, every road lead to THE CALL, for Brad Anderson. How did the smartest, craftiest young American director fared with a blockbuster on his hands? Great, I must say. Despite dealing with a rather mediocre screenplay.
The concept is deceptively cliché. There is a serial killer running loose in the streets of Los Angeles, snatching blond teenage girls off the street. 911 operator Jordan Turner (Halle Berry) was in contract with the first victim before she was killed and a mistake she committed under pressure most likely got the girl caught. Six months later, Jordan moved on. She made a lateral career move and became the trainer for new 911 operators. While she's introducing the new trainees to the call floor, a new, more sensitive op receives a kidnapping call and freaks out of her functions. Jordan takes over. The victim is trapped inside a car trunk and all signs point to the perpetrator being the same who got on the phone with Jordan several months ago.
You won't enjoy THE CALL droning through it, hoping for the story to wrap you up. Like most every Brad Anderson movies, it requires active engagement from the audience. While the cliché approach would be having several phone calls during the movie, in a sequence more or less orchestrated by the killer to satisfy his sick parasexual urges for control, THE CALL takes the opposite route. It's centered around one, long call and focuses on details that escape the killer's control. You have to be a mystery fan to appreciate this sort of deconstruction, but it's quite clever.
Richard d'Ovidio's screenplay has a few shining moments, notably a redeeming ending after a frustratingly cliché third act, but it's disappointing overall. For example, Jordan has a policeman boyfriend/love interest (played by Morris Chestnut) who is as useless as pants on a sabre tooth tiger throughout the movie. The character could obviously be used to respect our suspension of disbelief, but he remains on the sidelines for some shadowy reason. Of course, a serial killer story will also expose you to a series of boring routes you have to take, but both Brad Anderson, Michael Eklund and d'Ovidio himself did a good job building Michael Foster as an obsessive man who gave up to his dark urges, rather than a clean, professional control freak.
There is an ironic pleasure in watching THE CALL. It feels both familiar and strange, because it exposes the nuts and bolts of the cheapest thriller construction of the last two decades in Hollywood: the serial killer movie. The beauty of it is in its simple but engaging structure and its deliberate challenge of the subgenre's tropes. Maybe Brad Anderson didn't hit a home run of SESSION 9 or TRANSSIBERIAN's magnitude, but THE CALL is definitively a hit. The screenplay is a little weak, especially on a line-to-line basis and not everybody will appreciate its odd playfulness, but THE CALL is more than meet the eye. It's a mainstream thriller that addresses you as an intelligent being.