The urgent, life-or-death tracking of a serial killer and his kidnapped prey paves the way for near-constant high-throttle intensity in "The Call," a polished, surprisingly informative thriller that shows up 2012's similar, far dumber indie effort "Amber Alert
." With much of the film a two-person show playing out over an emergency phone call, director Brad Anderson exhibits, just as he did with 2001's "Session 9
" and 2011's "Vanishing on 7th Street
," a rousing, ever-tight command of all the elements needed to clench an audience by the throat. That the gripping intelligence of the first 75 minutes grows dumber the closer the film gets to its improbable conclusion is less Anderson's fault than screenwriter Richard D'Ovidio's (2001's "Thir13en Ghosts
"), but it still knocks "The Call" down a notch from the "rave" status it otherwise might have earned.
Jordan Turner (Halle Berry) is a cool, calm and collected 911 operator in Los Angeles until a rash mistake on her end causes the death of a teenage girl being pursued by a sociopath. Six months later, a guilt-stricken Jordan has transitioned to the training unit, reluctant to return to her old position on the floor. While giving a tour one day, she witnesses a call suddenly come in from 16-year-old Casey Milner (Abigail Breslin), a girl who has been kidnapped from a mall parking garage and is currently trapped in a car truck. Pressed for help by a colleague, Jordan jumps back into action, comforting Casey and preparing her to fight for survival as the LAPD desperately try to track her whereabouts (she's on a disposable phone with no GPS locator).
Take away the abduction plot and "The Call" would still be absorbing and educational, an insightful portrait of a major-city 911 call center, from the so-called "hive" down on the main level, to the "quiet room" where workers go to decompress after especially stressful correspondences, to discussions about patterns in calls based on which day of the week it is. Halle Berry (2012's "Cloud Atlas
") makes for an instantly likable and sympathetic guide as Jordan Turner, the actress giving psychological depth to a character who can't quite shake the teenage victim she let down and sees this current callone that she comes to discover she has more of a connection to than immediately meets the eyeas a chance at redemption.
Once the meat of the premise gets underway, the picture raises the stakes and the tension, rarely parting ways from the interplay between Jordan at the call center and Casey pleading for help in her kidnapper's trunk as the car barrels down the freeway. Jordan's instructions on how to get attention from passersby is plausible enough to sound like real help if a viewer were to ever find him or herself in such a situation. Meanwhile, for the unhinged monster in an average thirty-something guy's body (Michael Eklund), he begins to lose it as his devious plan unravels and other innocent victims are left in his wake. When things become particularly harrowing and seemingly hopeless, Casey tells Jordan she wants to send a good-bye voice message to her mom. It's touching not only because of the circumstance, but because what she says rings true for a teenage girl facing her own mortality in the eye. As Casey, a strikingly grown-up Abigail Breslin (2011's "New Year's Eve
") is candid and authentic in a dramatically demanding part that has her crying and scared out of her mind for the majority of time. What is so appreciated, though, is that she refuses to just be a victim; when it comes down to it, she finds the strength inside to not give up without a fight.
Slickly photographed by Tom Yatsko, who takes moody advantage of the long, winding stretches of roadway throughout Los Angeles and the Santa Clarita Hills, "The Call" comes very close to being a top-notch effort in the vein of 1991's "The Silence of the Lambs." Then the finale arrives and certain rails are sadly jumped. While revelations into the killer's past are appropriately icky and creepy, the script becomes far-fetched, characters are asked to do inane things, and the last scene, beyond being morally shady, does a disservice to the innate goodness within Jordan and Casey. They deserved more respect in the home stretch, just as the film as a whole did. "The Call" is too good for too long to not be worth recommending, but it's disappointing to see so much potential squandered just for a dishonest twist and some cheap thrills. In this case, less would have been more.