I wasn’t sure what to think the first time I saw Matthew Parkhill’s The Caller. There was definitely a lot to like about it, but it also had a certain gauziness that kept me at arm’s length. After seeing it a second time, I can definitely say that I like the film as a whole – but it’s one of those frustrating forms of ‘like’ where I found myself wishing the filmmakers had just a few more resources at their disposal to really bring it home. As it stands, it’s a good movie with great potential that I wanted to work just a little bit better than it did.
The Caller centers around Mary Kee (Rachelle Lefevre), who has recently exited an abusive marriage and entered an abusively ugly apartment. When the place’s ancient phone starts ringing she answers and is confronted by what she at first believes to be a senile old woman, Rose (Lorna Raver), who still thinks it’s 1979. Needless to say, it’s not that simple. One of the strongest elements of the film is how it economically it expands on that concept. You learn all you need to know about the mechanics behind the curtain during a simple scene where Mary’s new crush John (Stephen Moyer) sketches out this film’s version of the flux capacitor.*
I’ve never been the biggest J-Horror fan and have especially never taken to its Americanized counterparts. The Ring might actually be my second least favorite Gore Verbinski film simply because it lets such a great concept go so utterly off the rails**. And while it would seem at first glance that The Caller is heavily influenced by that type of film (and Frequency) Sergio Casci’s script wisely avoids a common misstep in the genre simply by keeping its reach within its grasp. By patiently whittling at the central conceit the film is able to develop a seemingly mundane idea into something that’s actually inventive and rewarding. So while we don’t the money shots of something with the budget of The Ring, what we do have is a story that builds to a legitimate third act without throwing out anything that has come before. The film’s conclusion is legitimately tense because of the stakes at hand for Mary (both emotionally and physically), not because something that only qualifies as “freaky” happens.
Another thing this film gets right is Rachelle Lefevre. Her character is in every single scene, so if the lead actress didn’t work (and the first one didn’t – Lefevre was called in after the first day of shooting) the whole thing would be a wash. It’s a tricky role, one that requires being on the phone, with no one else to cut to, for a significant portion of the running time. Throughout the course of the film Mary has to balance the terror of dealing with Rose with the pessimism and fear of a violently broken marriage along with the frightening prospect of opening herself up to the optimism of new love. It’s a juggling act that’s not always served by the film’s editorial limitations, but Parkhill and Lefevre effectively guide her through the ringer. Early on there’s a scene with Mary shopping in the supermarket, going about her daily routine until she’s interrupted by an act of casual douchebaggery that knocks her off center. The whole thing is accompanied in voice-over by a conversation between her and Rose and that does a nifty job of setting up the character’s worldview. It also doesn’t hurt that Lefevre is magnetic. She’s not overly made up, in fact with her big hair and fair skin she often seems to be losing the battle against Puerto Rico’s heat and humidity. But there’s an undeniable sensuality and sweetness to her that don’t ring of artifice in the least.
In fact, the whole cast does good work. Moyer is likable, patient and chivalrous. Ed Quinn oscillates effectively between anger, jealousy and rage (and if you’re amenable to an alternate take on the film’s reality – affability and confusion). Luis Guzman gets to say the line “he’s handling that mower like a nervous lover”, which is pretty fun in and of itself.
So what doesn’t work? Well the film almost lost me in the first scene. In fact, the first 10 minutes are oddly flat. I’m always glad to see something pick up steam as it goes along, but this one cuts it close. There are also some character choices that seem inspired more by necessity than clear motivation (the secrecy of Guzman’s character George comes to mind). It makes for a bit of an unnerving mix when some of the other choices seem relatable and occasionally clever. Some of the exchanges deflate as well, as if they almost got it but had to move on to the next take. But more than anything else, it’s just frustrating to see such a fun concept beset by such limited means.
Ultimately, the worst thing I can say about The Caller could also pass for a compliment. I liked it enough to want more out of it.
*A quick spoilerynote – a lot of people seem to be wondering (aloud and in print), “why doesn’t she just not pick up the phone?” If you see the film and pay a modicum of attention to what’s going on you’ll realize that, after a certain point, she HAS to pick it up. That’s kind of the point guys.
**I haven’t seen Ringu in over 10 years and can’t remember if it squanders the concept as badly as The Ring does. Feel free to let me know (or call me names) in the comments section.