The Call


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Fleet, confident, and cognizant of its genre obligations, “The Call” is a surprisingly effective white-knuckle kidnapping thriller. Showcasing Halle Berry in what seems like her first decent role in ages, director Brad Anderson’s nerve-rattling exercise in split-second decision making owes its most significant debts to Alfred Hitchcock, who might have enjoyed the high-concept series of problems to solve and would probably have excused a few of the film’s lapses in narrative logic. Hitchcock’s own movies often incorporated the kind of unbelievable coincidence dispatched to pump the narrative adrenaline of “The Call.”

Berry’s Jordan Turner is a seasoned LA 911 operator who works in “The Hive,” a sophisticated, high-tech call center that serves as the nexus between all manner of trouble and the first responders dispatched to assist. While the impressive set design imagines a state-of-the-art mission control, “The Call” economically establishes the stressful climate where highly trained dispatchers are always just one click away from unspeakable mayhem. The Russian roulette nature of emergency services means that some calls will not end well. One day, during a home invasion crisis, Jordan arguably makes a mistake that costs a young woman her life.

One of the chief pleasures of “The Call” is the number of refreshingly egalitarian depictions of work and other relationships involving women. The filmmakers credited with the story, Jon Bokenkamp and spouses Richard and Nicole D’Ovidio, deliberately opted for a female lead after Ms. D’Ovidio heard a National Public Radio story on the topic of 911 calls. The movie’s core relationship develops (largely in real time) between Jordan and Abigail Breslin’s Casey Welson, the abducted teenager taken by the same perpetrator involved in Jordan’s fateful earlier call. While “The Call” does subject Breslin’s character to a lurid bondage display, the film’s sensibilities are fare less offensive than the casual sexism of the weekend’s other studio release, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.”

“The Call” loses much of its momentum once the bad guy arrives at his hideout destination with Casey. The previously taut script abruptly shifts attention to the murderer’s elaborate preparations in a plot device that thieves from “Psycho” and “The Silence of the Lambs.” This misstep is a common variation on the “Fallacy of the Talking Killer,” identified by Roger Ebert as the trope facilitating the rescue of the imperiled by a pokey, unhurried villain who messes around just long enough for help to arrive. Additionally, the audience is asked to believe that level-headed Jordan would fail to contact Officer Paul, her caring, on-the-case boyfriend played by Morris Chestnut, en route to the creepy, isolated location where her gut tells her Casey is imprisoned.

While Jordan’s brand of last act derring-do nearly functions as a kind of stylistic requirement ala “heroine confronts monster all by herself,” the denouement adds a wild rape-revenge comeuppance initiated by traumatized Casey (possible, if not plausible) and participated in by Jordan (logically suspect and wholly out of character). This coda is far and away the movie’s riskiest gambit, and some viewers will reject the farfetched turn of events that functions in practically every way like a violation of tone in the movie’s previously established universe.

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