THE CALL TRAILER: Will you answer?

This 2:30 densely edited trailer tells of a 911 operator (Halle Berry) fighting to rescue a caller kidnapped by a serial killer (Abigail Breslin). The twist, is that Berry has been in this situation before and through unwitting error contributed to the death of an earlier victim. Now, she seeks redemption as well as an end to a monster’s predation.

While the genre and formula are not especially appealing to me, the trailer for The Call was impressive for a variety of reasons that I hope to detail in this analysis.

The marketing approach of the trailer exploits a tried and true mode of audience address: the interrogative. It asks, what would you do in a similar circumstance. The question, besides explaining the plot and the conflict of the protagonist, elegantly and powerfully establishes a point of identification between viewer and heroine. As a copywriter, I typically include interrogative scripts in most explorations as a matter of course, since it is such a useful device, although it is not for every feature.

In this case, it works beautifully. First, we are asked to identify with a decision that results in a tragedy for which Berry is partially responsible. Who among us hasn’t inadvertently caused harm despite good intentions and authorized effort? But it’s this common experience that provides the emotional power of the situation, a situation that will be repeated (or duplicated), providing another opportunity to obtain the right result, save a life, be a hero and/or redeem oneself. That opportunity is not only available for Berry, but vicariously, and because of the identification established earlier, for us the viewer.

This dynamic is known to psychoanalysis as “repetition mastery” and it involves reliving a painful experience (whether in dream, fantasy, or apprehension), in order to change the outcome and escape the cycle of failure/trauma. According to Freud it’s constitutive of human psycho-social development: it’s a process we all experience in separating from our primary caregiver and becoming independent individuals. In other words, as a rhetorical device and an emotional catalyst, the concept that underlies the trailer is universal and powerful. Of course, the consequence and the quality of the material must rise to the dynamic; otherwise, the approach is incongruous and absurd, resulting in bombast and hyperbole.

Here’s how the copy (white text on black cards) positions the story and the viewer:
“What if you heard the sound…
Of an intruder?”

(We see 911 operator Berry taking a call.)

“what if you heard the cries
of a victim?”

(Berry calls back and inadvertently alerts the killer to the girl’s hiding place. )

“what if your mistake
cost someone their life?”

After watching a news report about yet another serial killing, Berry sees proof of what she suspects had happened. She is despondent, but consoled by a male friend and police officer. (Morris Chestnut)

Some time later, another young woman, (Breslin) is abducted from a parking garage. She contacts a 911 operator, who out of inexperience with this king of emergency, passes the call to Berry. This time, Berry resolves to avoid the mistakes of the past and save a life, a determination that takes her from the call center and into physical contact with the killer.

After a series of tightly shot, tension-building edits of claustrophobic terror in which police pursue killer and victim along a path strewn with collateral damage, the copy continues:

“This March

If you had a second chance
To go beyond the call
What would you do?”

After a cast run featuring the Academy Award wins and nominees of its two stars, as well as close combat between Berry and the Killer, the trailer ends with the voice of a 911 operator, answering the call:

“911 where is your emergency.” Once again, the interrogative V.O. collapses the distance between feature entertainment and personal experience. Indeed, where is our emergency?

This trailer includes more than 160 edits, or more than 1 per second. It uses stutter-shots and slow motion, as well as a sound-scape of diegetic and extradiegetic noises to stimulate anxiety and simulate the experience of a victim’s terror. Nearly all of the shots are kinetic, whether scenes of action or the zooming or panning action of the camera. Apart from a couple of establishing shots –overhead in the 911 call center or via helicopter above the LA freeway grid– medium, close up and extreme close-up shots predominate, lending immediacy, emotional connection and intimacy to the the story as it is presented.

It’s only at the end of the trailer, where Berry has tracked the Killer to his lair, that he realizes that he’s being seen –as a monster–rather than as a 30-something, reasonably attractive, middle-class professional. He freezes and looks back, exposed, vulnerable and aware of himself for the first time. Otherwise, he’s seen in action and control, or tightly shot in silhouette, his mouth to the phone speaker, dispassionately describing his atrocity as “it’s already done.”

Lastly, I wanted to mention a compelling final graphic, prior to the title, website and social media urls. Against a Tron-like grid– representative, presumably, of the network of fibre optics and modern telephony–the white fluorescent letters of “CALL” pixilate into visibility against a fucsia grid on black background with blue neon flashes. Whether it’s the city grid as seen by night, or the monitor screen of a 911 operator, it’s a strong, evocative title.

My only complaint about this excellent, involving and deftly edited and sound-designed trailer is that I don’t understand exactly why or how Berry, a 911 operator, finds herself in hand-to-hand combat with the killer, given that he’s on the run, subject to a vast man-hunt, and unrelated to her apart from brief conversations with him in the course of her job. Is this the “surprise” or “twist” that the Trailer dare not give away? I suppose I’ll have to see the film to find out.

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movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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