We get it. The killer is brutal. And he's psychotic. And he's unbelievably strong too. Must be the freeze-framey adrenalin.
"Call me a bitch." Casey (Abigail Breslin) shakes her head. "Okay, just say the word," her friend Autumn (Ella Rae Peck) presses. But no, Casey doesn't like "that word." Blond and lovely and careless, the girls make their way through a Los Angeles mall, Autumn repeatedly distracted by her two phones, one a prepaid bestowed on her by a possessive new boyfriend: "He just wants to keep track of you," Casey observes, rolling her eyes.
It turns out that keeping track can be used for good and ill, as all cellphone users know. Following the two girls into a fast food restaurant, The Call needs only a few deft minutes of jostled, obstructed frames to set up the good, sensible girl who will be in trouble. At the same time, the film cuts back and forth between Casey and her good, sensible rescuer, a former 911 operator named Jordan (Halle Berry), who, following the loss of a caller to a serial killer, is now taking prescription anti-anxiety pills and training new operators ("My daddy told me the hardest part about being a cop," she says by way of over-explaining her trauma, "is knowing you might be difference between somebody living and somebody dying"). As Jordan walks her trainees through the "hive," an impressively outfitted floor full operators and high-techy monitors, Casey walks to her car in the parking lot, a stalkerish camera increasing your own anxiety.
You're not surprised when Casey is assaulted by an average-looking white guy who keeps his face hidden (Michael Eklund), when she's knocked out by chloroform and trapped inside the trunk of a car. But still, the film -- for a good half hour, anyway -- develops a decent tension by cutting between these two girls in confined frames. Casey's ordeal is plain enough: fish-eye lenses show her inside the dark trunk, the cellphone barely lighting her terrified face. Jordan appears in tight frames as well, the huge hive space seeming to shrink around her as her interaction with Casey appears to shut down all other business in the 911 center: everyone in her wheely-chaired vicinity is focused on her, as is her boyfriend Paul (Morris Chestnut), a cop who takes up the pursuit of the killer's car, which Casey helpful describes by color and number of doors.
The crosscutting among scenes feels hectic but also coherent, as Jordan talks Casey into a slightly reduced state of panic: "What else is in the trunk?" Jordan asks (an exceedingly helpful can of paint, it turns out). "Good girl," she tells her more than once, "Good girl." Can she kick out a taillight? What's her favorite movie? When is her birthday? On learning that Casey's a Capricorn, Jordan claims to be one too. "We're both fighters," she contends. And so they'll fight through this thing together.
Thus The Call introduces a theme that's familiar to viewers of director Brad Anderson's previous psychological thrillers, each a story of internal descent manifested in unnerving corollary images. As both Casey and Jordan fight through this nightmare, at once together and existentially apart, they find in themselves and each other a strength that's necessarily born of rage and fear. Both good girls, both victimized, they come to achieve remarkable feats, aggressive, desperate, and violent.
This script, however, is less impressionistic, more conventional, than The Machinist, Transsiberian, and Session 9. Here the investigation of psyches is increasingly unfocused, such that Casey's torment -- so ready to be vivid -- is cluttered rather than clarified by Jordan's too-explanatory flashbacks to the other call from a blond girl victim, the one that opens the film and briefly renders Jordan unable to take calls. And both the girls' shifting sensibilities, their horrific new comprehensions of the world around them, are encumbered by the killer's utterly hackneyed and preposterous background.
Access to his tragedy doesn’t make the killer any more frightening or effective as a plot device (which is his lot, after all). Shots of his sweaty face and icy blue eyes and contorted grimace tend toward overkill, as it were. And observing him attack anyone who questions him during his conspicuously long drive to his scary hideout (predictably appointed with straps and chains and sharp utensils) only prolongs the inevitable, literally, when blurred step-freeze-framey shots capture blood splatters or twisted mouths. We get it. He's brutal. And he's psychotic. And he's unbelievably strong too. Must be the freeze-framey adrenalin.
Here, as ever, the killer's atrocities drive the (women's) revenge. This revenge takes a few visual forms, including clumsy expository shots where Jordan is framed alongside signs of her goodness, behind a huge 911 emblem or in front of an American flag. This last comes after she's left the hive and wandered -- there's no better word for it -- toward the killer's lair out in the boonies, without backup, without a weapon, without a cellphone signal. The film asks for this problem, when Casey loses her cellphone and so you're set up to anticipate the girls coming together in the same physical space.
Here Casey and Jordan share a descent, partly literal (a hole in the ground) and mostly psychological, as each sorts out how to "fight" the monster who -- despite and because of his personal backstory -- is more symptomatic than individual. That's not to say the film presents all men evil or destructive. It is to say that, as this one man's trauma makes him sick and gruesome, the women's trauma transforms them, and you, so that their fighting back seems inspired and invigorating. Put it this way: now educated and abused, good girl Casey no longer has a problem with bad language.