Brad Anderson ("Session 9," "The Machinist," "Transsiberian") is a capable genre craftsman with a good eye for shadowy atmosphere. In addition to directing features, Anderson has built a rock-solid side career as a prolific TV director. Even Anderson's lesser films — like "Vanishing on 7th Street," a sort of watered-down John Carpenter movie — have been surefooted. That, unfortunately, can't be said about his latest movie, "The Call," a sputtering, so-so B thriller with a neat hook but very little personality.
Halle Berry stars as an operator at a 911 call center in Los Angeles. Dressed in a poodle wig and polo shirt, Berry spends most of the movie seated behind a desk. Her world — "the Hive," as her co-workers call it — is compact and work-centric. Even her boyfriend, a handsome LAPD officer (Morris Chestnut), is a colleague. A framed photo glimpsed briefly in her apartment suggests that she comes from a police family.
"The Call" opens with a bird's eye view of the city and a montage of operators answering 911 calls — some frivolous, some serious. Then the movie — which, if nothing else, is briskly-paced — gets right to setting up the plot. Berry answers a home invasion call from a teenage girl and makes a minor but critical mistake which leads to the girl's kidnapping. The next day, her body is found in a shallow grave.
Berry's colleagues don't fault her for the misstep, but she nonetheless resigns from answering calls to focus on training new operators. Six months later, she's leading a group of trainees through their first tour of the Hive when a call comes in from a teenage girl (Abigail Breslin) who has been abducted and locked in the trunk of a car. The operator who answers doesn't know how to handle the call and veteran Berry reluctantly takes over.
Breslin explains that she's been nabbed from a mall parking lot by an unknown man, and that the trunk she's in contains a shovel — suggesting that her abductor intends to kill and bury her. Of course, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that the man who has kidnapped Breslin is the same one who abducted and killed the teenage girl six months earlier.
Played by a twitchy, hammy Michael Eklund, he's a stock weirdo serial-killer type. He likes cheesy music (when Breslin wakes up in his trunk, he's blasting Taco's "Puttin' on the Ritz"). He's panicky and easily spooked. For a guy who has a whole underground bunker devoted to torturing blonde teenagers, he seems very poorly prepared.
At the center of "The Call"'s premise is the mobile phone Breslin is calling from. It's one of those cheap, pay-as-you-go disposables, which means that the call center can't trace it. Also, the car is in motion; neither Breslin nor Berry can pinpoint her location. Technical impossibility aside (disposable cellphones are traceable), it makes for a cool cat-and-mouse premise: Breslin and Berry must conspire to outwit the serial killer without knowing exactly where he is or where he's headed.
All it would take to pull off this conceit is a little filmmaking imagination and a firm grip on form. Unfortunately, "The Call" has neither. Much of the movie is bland-looking and flat. The endless shots circling Berry at her desk as she yells and cries into a headset grow monotonous. The premise may suggest claustrophobia — Berry stuck at her desk, Breslin stuck in the trunk — but "The Call" is too spatially wonky to be tense.
Thrillers don't make themselves; it's a genre where an absence of style is synonymous with an absence of entertainment. Anderson tries to spice things up with some flashy flourishes — freeze-frames, for example — but these do nothing except to suggest a filmmaker overcomplicating a simple problem. In many ways, "The Call" resembles Joel Schumacher's "Phone Booth" (2002) — another movie with a strong, simple premise ruined by execution (interestingly, Schumacher was originally slated to direct "The Call"). However, "Phone Booth" was at least campy enough to be fun. The best "The Call" can manage is Eklund's bug-eyed performance — a piece of acting that's less calculating psychopath and more freaked-out acid causality.
Oddly, as the screenplay — by Richard D'Ovidio, whose last credit was for the Steven Seagal/DMX vehicle "Exit Wounds" (2001) — gets dumber, the movie gets better, or at least more confident. The final act of "The Call" finds the movie betraying its premise by having Berry venture out of the Hive to find Eklund's hideout and rescue Breslin. At this point, "The Call" devolves into a grindhouse-style rape-revenge movie.
The conclusion is silly and morally questionable, even by exploitation movie standards. It does, however, allow Anderson to do what he's good at: orchestrating dark, claustrophobic horror. For its final fifteen or so minutes, "The Call" rises above hackwork. Unfortunately, it doesn't rise very far.
Trevor Reznik is a machinist in a factory. An extreme case of insomnia has led to him not sleeping in a year, and his body withering away to almost nothing. He has an obsessive compulsion to write himself reminder notes and keep track of his dwindling weight, both scribbled on yellow stickies in his apartment. The only person he lets into his life in an emotional sense is Stevie, a prostitute, although he has an infatuation with Maria, a single mother waitress working in an airport diner. His co-workers don't associate with and mistrust him because of not knowing what is going on in his life that has led to his emaciated physical appearance. A workplace incident further alienates him with his coworkers, and in conjunction with some unfamiliar pieces of paper he finds in his apartment, Trevor believes that someone or some people - probably one or some of his coworkers - are out to get him, using a phantom employee named Ivan as their front. As Trevor goes on a search for evidence as to Ivan's schemes and whereabouts, Trevor may come to a true understanding of what has caused his insomnia.
Trevor Reznik is a lathe-operator who suffers from insomnia and hasn't slept in a year. Slowly, he begins to doubt his sanity as increasingly bizarre things start happening at work and at home. Haunted by a deformed co-worker who no one seems to think exists, and an ongoing stream of indecipherable Post-It notes he keeps finding on his fridge, he attempts to investigate what appears to be a mysterious plot against him and, in the process, embroils two women in his madness.
"The Machinist" is a film about a man who hasn't slept in a year, and he starts thinking that he's losing his mind, when he starts seeing hallucinations, and his perception of reality becomes twisted. He's haunted by a co-worker that no one else can see, and keeps finding post-it notes with secret messages on his fridge....
An industrial worker who hasn't slept in a year begins to doubt his own sanity.
The synopsis below may give away important plot points.
- The movie opens up with credits while we hear Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale) grappling with something large and heavy. He drives his truck near a dam and would appear to have a body wrapped in a carpet to dispose of. He panics when someone starts to come closer, holding a flashlight. He pushes the carpet down and it starts to unroll. Just then, the man with the flashlight catches up to him and says, "Who are you?"
Trevor washes his hands with bleach in his bathroom sink. He looks up at his own gaunt face in the mirror-- stuck to the mirror he sees a post-it note that says "Who Are You?"
Trevor is with Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a call-girl. They've finished making love at her place, and Trevor washes up. She pokes fun at his extremely low weight. He creeps her (and the rest of the audience) out by sucking in his stomach and arching his back to show his bones sticking out. He walks out the door, leaving a tip in her jar.
Trevor goes to work at an unspecified industrial job where he is a. . . machinist. Trevor has a contentious relationship with the foreman, Tucker, because he likes to quote and apprise his co-workers of OSHA laws that Tucker would prefer to disregard. After work Trevor and his co-workers talk trash in the locker room while changing out of their coveralls. Jones (Reg E. Cathey) invites Trevor to play cards with the boys but Trevor declines, and Jones remarks that Trevor doesn't socialize the way he used to, another clue that all is not right in Trevor's world.
Trevor is now at an airport diner, chatting and flirting with a divorced waitress named Marie (Aitana Sánchez Gijón). He takes a look at the clock, which reads 1:30 am. She wants to know why Trevor shows up at the airport so late at night and teasingly asks if he's running away from something. Marie echoes Stevie's concerns about Trevor's skeletal physique: "if you were any thinner, you wouldn't exist." He eventually finds his way back to Stevie. During their pillow talk, he reveals to her that he hasn't slept in one year.
One afternoon after work, Trevor goes out for a smoke. While in his truck, he hears someone say that a storm is coming. He looks over and sees a stocky bald man leaning into his window. He introduces himself as Ivan (John Sharian). He says he is a new worker, covering for Trevor's friend, Reynolds.
Back on shift, Trevor and his co-worker Miller (Michael Ironside) are fixing a machine. Trevor looks over at Ivan, who makes a throat-slashing gesture. Trevor takes a step back and his shoulder hits a button that turns on the machine. Miller's arm is caught and slowly entering it. They try to turn off the machine and free him, but can't do it in time. Miller's arm is torn from his body, and seen still spinning around in the machine minus Miller. They call for an ambulance and Trevor goes into his boss's office. They ask him what happened. He says Ivan must have distracted him. His boss seems puzzled. They have no employees named Ivan.
Trevor sees Ivan leaving in his red sports-car and follows him. He pulls up next to him in traffic and says they need to talk. They go into a bar, where Trevor confronts Ivan with the fact that no one at the factory has ever heard of him. Ivan insists that he does indeed work there and that maybe Trevor's boss and co-workers are playing a joke on him. Ivan also shows Trevor that his own hand was maimed on a machine. After losing his fingers, doctors replaced his thumb with a big toe and his pinky finger with his baby toe, resulting in a grotesque deformity. Ivan excuses himself to go to the restroom, leaving his wallet behind, which Trevor opens. He sees a picture of Ivan and Reynolds fishing. He keeps it as proof that Reynolds knows Ivan.
Back at work his co-workers are angry with him, seeing him as a jinx. They say they do not trust him anymore.
During the next couple of days Trevor is perplexed when post-its start to appear on his fridge. They resemble a game of 'hangman.' The first has six blanks to fill with letters. Trevor has no idea what is going on. Later on the next day, the blanks read _ _ _ _ E-R.
On Mother's Day, Trevor accompanies Marie and her son Nicholas (Mathew Romero Moore) to an amusement park. Marie's cel rings and she excuses herself to talk to the caller, "Probably my ex." Nicholas convinces Trevor to take him on a scary ride called Route 66. The scares become increasingly bizarre and graphic, and at the end of the ride, rapidly flashing lights cause Nicholas to suffer a seizure. Trevor feels terrible about taking Nicholas on the adult ride, but Marie seems quite forgiving about the whole thing and assures Trevor that when Nicholas wakes up, "it will be as if nothing ever happened." They go back to her place and have some wine. He goes to the kitchen and sees that the clock reads 1:30 and there's a Mother's Day card magnetized to the refrigerator that Nicholas gave to Marie. He notices that his handwriting matches the "ER" in his last hangman post-it. When he goes back home, he makes a guess and fills in MOTHER. He looks at an old photo album of his own mother and sees a picture that eerily resembles the one he took of Nicholas and Marie earlier.
Back at work, Miller comes by to get his settlement check and seems good-natured about the accident. He tells Trevor that he's very happy with the financial compensation the company has awarded him. However, Trevor almost gets into an accident himself, which nearly costs his arm. He starts to become paranoid, wondering if his co-workers have it out for him. Staring at the hangman's game at his apartment, he makes another guess: MILLER.
He visits Miller's home to demand answers. Trevor accuses Miller of trying to get revenge. Miller doesn't understand why Trevor's so upset but eventually he gets tired of Trevor screaming at him, punches Trevor in the gut and tells him to leave. Afterwards Trevor sees Ivan leaving the scene and he pursues him by car, but Ivan escapes. Trevor is starting to believe there is a conspiracy against him.
Trevor goes back to Stevie's for sex. Afterwards we can see that they have feelings for each other. After some talking, she tells him she wants to quit hooking and start a relationship with him, which is what Trevor wants as well.
He goes back to the airport diner to see Marie. The scene looks much different-- it's now crowded, noisy and dimly lit. The frumpy waitress behind the counter tells Trevor that nobody named Marie works there. Trevor starts to freak out and yells at the waitress and the customers. He accuses them all of playing along in the conspiracy. In the airport parking garage, he spots Ivan driving off again. He slowly tails him.
He memorizes Ivan's plate numbers but loses sight of the car in a near accident. He then goes to the Department of Motor Vehicles to see if he can get Ivan's contact information. The DMV won't help him unless he has a criminal complaint to file. Trevor jumps in front of an oncoming car so he can go to the police and pretend to be the victim of a hit and run, giving Ivan's license plate. A detective informs Trevor that the plates belong to a car that was owned by Trevor and reported completely destroyed by him one year before. The cops accuse him of pranking them. Trevor is confused and runs off. The cops give chase through some subway tunnels, but he escapes.
Trevor stumbles back to Stevie's. She is dismayed by the extent of his injuries and urges him to see a doctor, which he refuses to do. Stevie is ready to let Trevor move in with her and find a regular job, until Trevor spots the picture of Ivan with Reynolds, and accuses Stevie of plotting against him with Ivan. Stevie tells him the photo is of Reynolds and none other than Trevor himself. She also has no idea who Ivan is. She says that Trevor left the picture after his last visit. Trevor becomes enraged and calls Stevie a whore, to which she replies that Trevor is a psycho and that must be why he avoids doctors. She slaps him and throws him out. He drives back to his apartment building, only to find Ivan and Nicholas already going inside. He follows and has a fight with Ivan. He manages to cut his throat but can't find Nicholas.
This puts Trevor back where he was at the beginning of the film. Trevor rolls Ivan's body up in a carpet and tries to dump it, but discovers that when the carpet unravels, it is empty. The man approaching with the flashlight is Ivan. He asks "Who are you?"
Back at Trevor's place, he washes his hands with bleach. He sees the post-it that asks "Who are you?" Reflected in the mirror, he can see Ivan standing behind him. Trevor starts to cry.
He repeatedly says "I know who you are."
In a flashback from more than a year ago, we see a healthy Trevor driving the same red sports car he saw Ivan driving. The time is 1:30 pm. As he approaches an intersection, he tries to light his cigarette and is distracted when he drops the lighter on the floor. He ends up hitting and killing Nicholas as the boy crosses the street. Marie runs to her child. Trevor flees the scene.
Back in the present, Trevor completes the hangman game and figures out who he is. It says KILLER. His guilt has caused his insomnia and trip into madness, which created Ivan. He never knew Marie and Nicholas (if those are their real names). He takes a trip downtown to a police station, where he says "I'd like to report a hit and run," and turns himself in.
The cops want to know if he wants to make a statement or phone call. He says "Later. I just want to get some sleep right now."
As he sits in his cell, he finally starts to doze off. The last image we see is a flashback of a distraught Trevor, driving down a road after the hit and run. Fade to white.