While mysteries can thrive in a story environment rich in plot line and full of characters the best thrillers seem to do best in sparse settings. Examples to investigate if you doubt this hypothesis is ‘Wait until Dark’ or the undisputed master of the genre, Hitchcock’ ‘Dial ‘M’ for Murder’, both adapted for the screen from highly successful stage plays conducive to one or two sets and a streamline cast of characters. Although understandably not on the rarified company of the examples just cited but despite its shortcomings it works as a solid offering in the thriller family. What it does is provide a routine occurrence repeated thousands of times a day; a function of running any large city throughout the globe. The premise of this potential rich premise is a conversation between a 911 operators located in Los Angles and a desperate teen age girl calling in for help. This describes a situation that is readily available to connecting with the audience, not only have a significant portion of the audience utilized this civic service at one time or someone else with personal experience. If not they have certainly be exposed to numerous scenes of a stalwart young woman sitting a switchboard crowned with her headset routing calls to the proper uniformed service for rapid resolution.
Jordan Turner (Halle Berry) works in such a critical yet underappreciated profession. As the film opens it is a typical night shift like so many Jordon has worked before. That is until she receives a call form a teenager, Leah Templeton (Evie Thompson). The girl is frantic, certain her home has been breached by an intruder. Jordan quickly provides the instruction required for the teen to elude detection and hide. When the call is disconnected Jordan becomes concerned and calls back. Unfortunately the intruder hears the ring and is able to get to the girl. The next thing she hears is a man’s voice, "it’s done". Later that week Jordon comes across a news item that Leah had been murdered. Jordon confesses to her boyfriend LAPD Officer Paul Phillips (Morris Chestnut) just to what degree the incident had unsettled; she is unable to done the headset and handle incoming calls. Her function is changed; Jordan becomes a training officer for new 9-11 operators.
The initial scene is for a purpose frequently overlooked by many filmmakers endeavoring to extend this genre; psychological foundation. The author of the story and screenplay, Richard D'Ovidio, has only a handful of credits on his resume including the not well received including the remake of the William Castle cult classic, ‘13 Ghosts’. That was a dozen years ago and he obviously spent the intervening time sharpening his understanding of the requisite concepts of the thriller. By the time the current events begin to unfold we already possess an understanding of Jordan’s psychological damage and her fragile emotional state. By the time we meet another teenage girl, Casey Welson (Abigail Breslin); we have bonded with Jordan and overlook the very familiar plot of a repeat of the pivotal traumatic. Director Brad Anderson fully appreciates this fact and uses that fabricated sympathy the audience has formed with the character to quickly move us into the new incarnation of the Sword of Damocles. With several episodes of television thrillers like ‘Fringe’ as well as numerous one offs on many other series, Brad Anderson, is a well season director with serious credentials in this category of expertise. We knew what is in store for Casey when first encountering her with her friends at the mall. There she receives a phone call from her mother asking Casey to pick up her brother, leaving her own phone but picking up s friend’s she heads down to the parking level where a man abducts her pushing Casey into his car’s trunk. Locked inside she uses her friend’s cell phone she calls 9-11, it is picked up by s rookie operated, Brooke (Jenna Lamia), overwhelming her necessitating her turning it over to Jordan who is reminded all too much of that dreadful night.
One of the main problems with s thriller set in modern times is the level of technology presents serious thematic problems in the crafting of the story. The mandatory need for isolation is nearly impossible with the proliferation of cell phone and the use of GPS systems increases the difficulty for the filmmaker to logically keep the authorities from locating the person in distress. In this particular instance the innocent phone swap left Casey with her friend’s cheap disposable phone. Jordan has to think quickly to have patrol cars help her narrow down the girl’s location. The killer is still plying his deadly trade moving Casey to another car and murdering Alan Denado (Michael Imperioli) for his vehicle. Some clues are found by the police; sufficient to identify the murderer as Michael Foster (Michael Eklund).
The story is set upon a well-crafted foundation that affords a great deal of potential to progress the plot. As mentioned the first act neatly establishes the background of the main character and the parameters that will be brought in to move the situation along. The second act retains the economy already employed with a straightforward kidnaper-murder. With Casey spending much of her time trapped in a trunk there is an inherent scene of a clock ticking down her survival. This provides a foreboding atmosphere that is palatable to the audience as a thick, growing tension. Unfortunately, the filmmaker is not able carry this feeling of dread and concern completely over to the third act. At this critical juncture the tension so carefully layered at the start and grown in the development phase unravels as the dénouement approaches. The final reveal is telegraphed and overall comes off as contrived. It is a shame since before this point Anderson and D’Ovidio had something truly intriguing in progress. Both men are having prior experience but D'Ovidio is still on a steeper learning curve as the screenwriter. He knows how to grab your attention, get you to care about the characters and give the director something solid to hand on to but he still has to sharpen the exceedingly difficult skill set of pulling the loose ends together in a natural fashion. I have absolutely no doubt that he will accomplish this in his next script or two. In any case ‘The Call’ is entertaining and worthwhile.
Commentary Featuring: Halle Berry, Abigail Breslin and the Filmmakers