For a moment, The Call was intended to be a television series, and in some ways it still feels as if it would work brilliantly in that medium. At the heart of it is Jordan Turner, a 911 operator played by Halle Berry, who works at the hub of the main emergency call centres in Los Angeles. While she’s renowned as one of the most professional and reliable call operators in the building, an uncharacteristic slip-up in the film’s opening scenes plays a role in a serial killer managing to locate, abduct and murder a young girl who has called into 911 after he breaks into her house. Yet Jordan barely has time to be haunted by that crime before the killer strikes again, this time abducting another girl who calls in from the trunk of his car, leading to a sustained phone conversation that comprises the majority of the film.
As that might suggest, much of The Call has the atmosphere of a television procedural, especially television procedurals that use crime as a way of mapping the coordinates and experiences of a single metropolis. Here, emergency calls become a way of navigating Los Angeles – at least a quarter of calls turn out to be people just asking for directions – as Jordan encourages new operators to think of themselves as “the eyes and ears of the whole city – the link between every human crisis and every first responder.” Unlike so many depictions of Los Angeles, this city has a nerve centre, which more or less corresponds with Downtown – the “hive,” as the 911 centre is called – but it is primarily a centre of crisis, attesting to an urban sprawl that is perpetually on the verge of conflagration. As operators, Jordan explains to some newbies, they have to manage all the kinetic energy of the city, while never absorbing that energy back into the call centre, or allowing it to infiltrate their own lives, let alone becoming involved with the PR – phone responder – in an emotive way.
For the first part of the film, Brad Anderson simply follows the 911 operators as they go about their business, immersing us in some of the things you learn on the job – that crimes of passion occur during hot weather, that suicides peak during rainy weather and on public holidays, that Saturday mornings tend to be the quietest shifts, and Friday nights the business. That quotidian atmosphere all changes, however, when Michael Foster (Michael Eklund), the home invader who defied Jordan’s efforts to save his first victim, abducts a new victim, Casey Welson, a high school student played by Abigail Breslin. This crime takes place in a mall carpark, where Michael bundles Casey into the trunk of his car, without realising that she has a disposable cell phone on her. For the second act of the film, we follow Casey as she calls Jordan and tries to make her way out of the trunk, or at least figure out where she is, resorting to one ingenious escape mechanism after another, from popping out the tail lights to catch a glimpse of highway, to pouring a can of paint out the back to make her trajectory more visible from the air. Among other things, that makes for a brilliant take on the claustrophobic, single-space thrillers of the early 2010s, as this sequence reveals that the real fear of those films, and their obsessive attention with minute spaces, was agoraphobic in nature – a way of forestalling a looming, post-spatial digitality that is equated here with the Los Angeles sprawl, and the delay in locating Casey’s mobile signal.
In other words, The Call isn’t about identifying the killer, but locating him – a very LA kind of procedural – since the most important thing that Casey has to do is simply figure out where she is. Time and again, she tries – and fails – to locate the highway she’s on from the sound of the road, or what she can glimpse from a punched-out tail light, while Jordan is just as powerless to figure out her location despite all the digital mapping and geolocative devices that are at her disposal. All that Casey has to guide her are a fleeting sequence of infrastructural fragments, encompassing the mall carpark, a commuter carpark, a surface street under a freeway, and then a remote service station – all spaces that seem to represent the cusp at which car-centric space starts to turn into public space, and at which people might be expected to leave the cars that constantly surround her for long enough to recognise the situation she is in. Yet that threshold is deferred so many times that it starts to feel like a false promise, as the prospect of a space in which people leave their cars, or in which public space takes over from automotive space, is relegated beyond the purview of the film, which eventually arrives, with Casey and her kidnapper, in the Santa Clarita hills, without having glimpsed a truly public or pedestrian zone in the entire Los Angeles sprawl.
What makes this crime so unique, then, is that it takes the time that elapses between an emergency call and the arrival of first responders and extends it far beyond what normally occurs, since in most cases – the film suggests – a crime is either committed or prevented within a couple of minutes of the call being made. In this case, however, that period extends for several hours, thanks to the difficulty of locating Casey’s phone, which happens to be a burner, and a series of contingencies that allow the killer to deflect the trail whenever it is closing in on him. As the film presents it, that spatial and temporal lapse between call and response is the part of the city that is most difficult to map, and most resistant to the cartographic rhetoric of the 911 unit itself, along with Anderson’s efforts to give voice to it by way of the recurring geometric drone shots of highways branching and converging, which arrived on the big screen a full twelve months before the opening credits of True Detective.
To a certain extent, this spatial and temporal lapse is unpresentable within the film’s visual vocabulary, meaning that the closest Anderson can come are extreme close-ups of the killer’s two victims – abject, distorted, grotesque vistas in which the angles and contours of the body are thrown into unbearable relief, and the rawness of the skin already feels like the surface of a cadaver. Whether it’s the killer slamming a screwdriver up against Casey’s face, or Casey being forced to share the trunk with a corpse that they accrue along the way, the distorted visual field of these sequences are a form of violence in themselves, evoking a part of the city that can’t be contained or subsumed into any kind of consistent visual scheme. To that end, Anderson also tends to shoot these sequence in sped-up motion, as if all the kinetic energy of the city were condensed into the killer’s crimes. No surprise then, that the killer turns out to be a medical technician, and that his modus operandi has a grisly surgical dimension, since this lapse between call and responder is also where the city feels most anarchically and polymorphously embodied, with even the tools of bodily regulation – the technology of medicine – being used as a means of unleashing chaos and disorientation.
As the film reaches the one hour mark, and the action shifts to the foothills, this visceral dimension takes over. This is where the film starts to diverge from what the television series might have been, as Jordan loses contact with Casey for good, and is told by her supervisor to go home without closure, since her role in the chase has now officially come to an end. For a brief moment, the film is not sure of where to go at this point, as Jordan finds herself hanging around the “hive” replaying Casey’s final recordings, and Casey is subjected to a fairly uninspired grindhouse horror sequence. Yet the film quickly finds its feet again once Jordan heads to the Santa Clarita hills herself, arriving to the house where Casey was last located, finding her broken phone, and then stumbling across a trapdoor to an underground bunker, only to drop her own phone into it, meaning that she has to actually descend into the bunker before she can call to report it. In a beautifully sustained period of suspense. Jordan now finds herself in precisely the lapse between call and response that she typically orchestrates, traversing the gap between responder and caller – a gap that is conceptual as much as physical – to gravitate the film quite elegantly into a quite different form of horror.
This leads to a final act that takes place in this underground bunker, which is presented here as the film’s ultimate anonymized space – the objective correlative of the lapse between call and responder – even or especially as it is made up to look like a normal home, often recalling the strange, subterranean domesticity of 10 Cloverfield Lane. As might be expected, Jordan eventually saves Casey, but what’s less expected is her response to calling in 911 herself. Unable to quite process the voice on the other end of the line, and overwhelmed at being introjected back into the city she normally manages, she hangs up and convinces Casey to dispose of the killer themselves, rather than depend upon either the first responders. It is as if, having traversed the threshold between call and response, she can no longer return to the reassurance of either call and response, and therefore has to dispose of the killer’s body herself to contain the spatial and temporal sprawl that he has forced her to occupy. Yet it wouldn’t be quite right to call this a vigilante ending either, since Jordan and Casey never murder or even hurt the killer, but instead simply leave him in the basement, closing the door on him with an indeterminate body language in what turns out to be the last shot of the film, which therefore ends on an queasily uncertain and eerie tone.
Most literally, it’s unclear whether or not Jordan and Casey are planning to come back and murder the killer, whether they are planning to simply let him perish, or whether they are likely to have a change of heart and call in the first responders after all. More broadly and ontologically, however, it’s unclear whether they have managed to contain the spatial and temporal sprawl that the killer represented, or identify him with the space of the bunker itself, since this ultimately seems like the final goal of their odd decision – to ensure that both he and the sprawl that he represents are converged and sequestered from view, rather than traversed in any decisive or definitive way. In other words, the link between call and response that drove Jordan’s job to begin with now, and the possibility of traversing that space between call and response, now feels impossible here, leaving her in a strange and indeterminate space in which she can neither quite identify as a responder or as a victim, but has instead been subsumed into precisely the amorphous convergence of spatiality and trauma that her entire profession has been designed to keep at bay. And in the indeterminacy of that ending lies one of the most original procedural depictions of Los Angeles of the 2010s – one that might easily have been expanded more in a television series, but might also have lost the inchoate hesitation that is so profoundly haunting here.