It would probably be appropriate to classify Brad Anderson's ferociously taut thriller The Call as a nail-biter, but that would imply that you'd be capable of digging your tightly clenched fists out of the movie-theater armrests to begin with (note to guys taking a date to the film -- wear a leather jacket with long sleeves). An efficient, high-concept thriller that echoes Larry Cohen's postmillennial output, it's precisely the kind of tense fare that plays best to a crowded house, and benefits greatly from the direction of a filmmaker who knows how to tighten the screws on his squirming audience.
Jordan Turner (Halle Berry) is a 911 operator in the Hive -- the bustling Los Angeles headquarters for emergency operators. Her job is extraordinarily stressful, though the camaraderie she shares with co-workers Flora (Denise Dowse) and Marco (José Zúñiga) helps Jordan to stay sharp and focused during those long nights on the phone. The veteran operator experiences a debilitating bout of self-doubt, however, after making a thoughtless mistake that results in the brutal murder of a young girl at the hands of a sadistic prowler. Six months later, Jordan is taking a group of young trainees on a tour of the Hive when an inexperienced operator receives a frantic call from Casey (Abigail Breslin), a terrified teen who is locked in the trunk of a speeding car after being abducted in a parking lot. Unfortunately, Casey is calling from a disposable phone with no chip, making it impossible for the operator to trace the call. Instinctively taking over the situation, Jordan does her best to calm Casey so that she can provide clues that will help authorities, including Jordan's police-officer boyfriend Paul (Morris Chestnut), identify the car and rescue the frightened abductee. With each passing minute the danger grows, and the hope for a happy outcome fades. Meanwhile, when the kidnapper (Michael Eklund) finds Casey's hidden phone, an ominous exchange with Jordan leaves her convinced that he's the same man who killed the other young girl six months prior. Horrified to discover just what's at stake should she fail to save Casey, the haunted operator takes the situation into her own hands, only to realize she may have unwittingly become the killer's next victim.
Over the course of the past decade, Brad Anderson has steadily emerged as one of the sharpest, most versatile filmmakers in the industry. Effortlessly moving between cinema (The Machinist, Transsiberian) and television (he's directed episodes of The Wire, Fringe, and Boardwalk Empire), he's shown equal talent for turning out compelling psychological thrillers and gripping potboilers. While The Call certainly falls into the latter category, Anderson's careful attention to detail -- and intuitive skill for knowing when to hold back -- ensure that the mechanics of Richard D'Ovidio's satisfyingly lean screenplay function with clockwork precision. There are at least two crucial revelations involving Casey in which Anderson adroitly focuses on her reaction rather than showing the audience what she's seeing. Skillful touches like these help keep us completely engaged and display a superior talent for the art of suspense. At the same time, the decision to reveal the antagonist's tragic history and depraved habits in a way that allows our imaginations to fill in the gaps is far more effective than any gratuitous gore. As a result, even when the screenplay falls back on a few overly familiar tropes in the final act, tension triumphs over routine. So effective are the first two acts at keeping us on the edge of our seats that when Anderson and D'Ovidio smartly ease back at the beginning of the third, we're still holding our breath in anticipation of the horrors to come.
Of course, none of this would matter much if we didn't feel an element of genuine danger. In his turn as the deeply disturbed maniac with a penchant for blonde girls, Michael Eklund provides just that -- oozing a sense of dead-eyed malevolence that's made all the more chilling by the few unsettling details we're given about his character's sinister methods. Berry, meanwhile, displays a satisfying blend of toughness and vulnerability that's perfectly complemented by Breslin's terrified determination to survive. So while few are likely to classify The Call as high art, the sweat on their brows when the credits start to roll will offer silent testament to the fact that Anderson and company have used the canvas of the silver screen to deliver a treasure of pulp tension.