Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Caller: There Is No When Safe

I have a dysfunctional relationship with genre and classification. I don't like the way genre comes with rules and expectations and tropes and plot devices and clich├ęs. On the other hand, if those preconceptions didn't exist, then combinations and hybrids wouldn't necessarily be quite as thrilling when done well. When expectations are subverted, it makes it harder for us to put distance between ourselves and the story, and thus more likely that we'll actually engage with it instead. It short-circuits the kind of meta-viewing exemplified by the Scream films, and that means we have to watch it, feel it, experience it without the protection of a knowing smirk. I am all in favor of that. So bring that shit on. Mash up some genres, fake me out, surprise me.

The Caller isn't so much a mashup of different genres as it is a movie that by its nature shows how similar different genres can be. It's basically a ghost story about time travel, or a time-travel story that feels more like a ghost story. Or maybe it's The Lake House as viewed in a warped, cracked, mirror.

Mary Kee is not enjoying herself. She's in the middle of an ugly divorce from an ex-husband who is grade-A restraining order material, and she's just moved in to a shabby little apartment building in San Juan. She's got a lot on her mind, so when the phone rings and it's a woman looking for someone named Bobby, she just assumes it's a wrong number and hangs up. Then the woman - named Rose - calls back. She is convinced that Bobby is there. Bobby promised her that he was coming home any day now…from Vietnam. As far as Rose knows, it's 1973. And when she tells Mary she'll draw something on a wall in the pantry to prove that she's real, Mary blows her off. She looks, but there's nothing there.

But when she scrapes off some old wallpaper, there's a drawing of a rose. 

It's a conversation between two people living their lives in the same place, in two very separate times. And, as it transpires, Rose is very needy and very unstable. One offhand comment changes everything, as events in the present are seen in the past, and events in the past begin to echo forward into the present. As far as Mary knows, Rose hung herself with the telephone cord in grief after Bobby left her. Then how is she still talking to Mary? Well, time travel is complicated, but at heart it feels like Mary is being haunted. And that's what I like about this movie - there's definitely an internal logic to what's happening, but no matter how much we tell ourselves we're watching a story about time travel, something in the back of our heads is saying no no ghosts ghosts shit shit shit RUN. We're too busy being creeped out to wonder about paradoxes.

Part of this is the constant sense of vulnerability we feel for Mary. If it's not the mysterious Rose, it's her supremely creepy ex-husband. He's not overplayed or frothing at the mouth, and so his interactions with Mary feel actually menacing. The camera hovers above and around Mary like it's furtively watching her. A lot of this movie takes place at night, and that doesn't help. Anything can happen in the dark. And as it transpires, anything can happen in the past as well. Mary's conversations with Rose create a circle, a causal loop, and the things Mary say and do now change what happens then, which changes what happens now, and soon any sense of security Mary has is stripped away. Space is not safe, because her ex-husband could be anywhere. Time is not safe, because Rose could change anything. The end effect is supernatural, even if the explanation is not. So Mary is haunted by her own past and someone else's at the same time.

The end result is creepy and suspenseful, and takes place in a world which feels very much like our own. These are believable people for good or ill, and we're watching their lives intersect for better or worse. There are some missteps - creepy music is a little overused throughout the first half of the movie - when a ringing phone is a big part of your story, you want silence to frame its interruptions. There are a couple of cheap scares, and the last act's pacing feels a little compressed. Overall, the story could stand to have some more room to stretch out and breathe. But it does so much right, in details large and small, that I won't dismiss it. Two people make a connection, and lives begin to unravel as a result. For a movie dealing with time travel and abusive spouses and mysterious phone calls and shadowy figures in the background of every family picture, it's a surprisingly human sentiment, and no less disturbing for it.

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