The Call is an unpleasant albeit economical B movie. This slick product dwells for the entirety of its brief running time on its abhorrent villain and his nasty doings in order to get to the viscerally satisfying payoff of his comeuppance. It’s not the kind of satisfaction the filmmakers should be proud of, but taken on the movie’s own narrow terms, it’s a satisfaction that feels good to indulge.
The film’s opening drops us into a Los Angeles 911 command center known to its occupants as “the hive” for all its buzz of activity. There, Jordan (Halle Berry) receives a call from a teenage girl whose house is being broken into. Jordan uses her wits to save the girl, only to make a critical mistake that ends up getting her killed. That wrenching episode is punctuated by a visual cliché of the horror genre that is nevertheless effective — the victim getting dragged by her legs and receding quickly away from the camera.
Six months after that traumatizing event, Jordan is off the floor and training newbies to the occupation. But when a still-green operator loses her nerve when she receives the call of a kidnapping in progress, Jordan puts on the headset and takes over. Eventually, she realizes that the same killer has struck again. Because this latest victim is played by Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine, New Year’s Eve) the question isn’t whether Jordan will stop the bad guy (she will), but how the filmmakers will eventually bring her and her tormenter together for a final showdown.
Breslin plays Casey, a sweet-faced and sweet-natured girl on a mall outing with one of her friends. That friend takes an early leave while the pair dines in the food court, leaving Casey on her own. (The Call is effective at exploiting Casey’s suddenly vulnerable position.) After being abducted in the mall’s parking garage, she awakens to find herself in the trunk of her captor’s car. Lucky for her, she also has a cell phone that will bring her and Jordan together.
Once again, Jordan uses her quick thinking to keep Casey calm enough to do things that will help the police find her. Berry conveys Jordan’s struggle to reassure Casey without promising that everything will be all right — as experience has taught her that’s a promise she can’t make.
It is, however, one she intends to keep. When Casey’s abductor destroys the phone, Jordan is out of the equation — but only as a 911 operator. The Call ratchets up the tension by having Jordan take a hands-on approach to finding Casey.
Fortunately for Jordan, her nemesis follows in the line of pop psychos who kill for a reason, one that requires him to keep Casey alive long enough for the heroine to track them both down. By the time they come to face to face, we’ve already had a vague understanding of why he’s been kidnapping and killing girls. Revealing his motivations as a sickness adds a sense of unease to his punishment. But at the film’s end, we know more about the killer’s back story than Jordan or Casey do. Even though it doesn’t play fair, The Call elicits the exhilaration of catharsis.