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Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Call Movie Review

"The Call", the latest film from director Brad Anderson ("Session 9", "Transsiberian"), is a high-concept thriller that starts off strong but, like its increasingly twitchy and unhinged villain, eventually devolves into irrational disarray. Starring Halle Berry as a Los Angeles-based 911 operator who fields a desperate call from a young kidnap victim trapped in the trunk of a car, the film begins with an intriguing premise and delivers some well-crafted scares that pack an unexpected emotional punch. Because its setup is skillfully executed, viewers can be forgiven for thinking in the early stages of the film that they are in for an entertainingly taut procedural thriller. It's therefore a genuine disappointment when the story falters under an increasingly heavy burden of baroque backstory and finally collapses with a third act so transparently stolen from "The Silence of the Lambs" that Thomas Harris and Jonathan Demme's next collaboration may very well be as co-plaintiffs in an open-and-shut copyright violation lawsuit.

On its face, "The Call" presents a workable story concept: A LAPD 911 operator fights to locate and rescue a kidnapped girl who's making a desperate emergency call from the trunk of a car. In fact, the film is at its best when we're following operator Jordan Turner (Ms. Berry) and getting to know how the Los Angeles emergency system works. We see that phone responders are required to think fast and remain detached, to triage an unpredictible array of crisis situations and dispatch resources while keeping frantic callers calm and functional in the face of catastrophe. Unfortunately, Jordan is off her game the day that she fields a call from a young girl who's the victim of a home invasion, and the repercussions are devastating. Six months later, Jordan is off the phones and working as a trainer when the aforementioned kidnap call comes through. It's a rush to watch her rapidly come to terms with her fears and jump back on the network to engage the desperate Casey (Abigail Breslin), who can't be located via cell phone GPS for reasons that the script maneuvers into place with some heavy expositional lifting. Jordan shuttles back and forth between calming Casey and approaching her predicament with problem-solving aplomb, while simultaneously carrying on an increasingly frantic dialogue with the support team working around her to locate the missing girl by following a ragged trail of clues. The rapidfire cuts between the police patrolling the freeways, a chase helicopter scanning from above, Casey weeping in the car trunk, her creepy kidnapper trying to hold it together at the wheel, and Jordan at the hub of it all make for some thrillingly energetic passages.

Mr. Anderson's direction ratchets up the tension in a manner both stylish and relentless. He makes the most of a stressful stop at a traffic light, or the metronome tick of a gas pump meter, and his quick cuts to the occasional grim closeup are somehow evocative rather than manipulative. For her part, Ms. Berry gracefully externalizes the sheer force of will needed for an emergency phone responder to remain calm and throw a verbal lifeline to a victim in a life-or-death situation, and Ms. Breslin, best known for her showy performance in "Little Miss Sunshine", is believably hysterical but never goes over the top. So what goes wrong?

"The Call" effortlessly juggles the "what" of its situation, but stumbles badly when trying to introduce the "who" and the "why". The movie bogs down in an attempt to explain the villain's motivations, and in order to do so it sacrifices the previously-established consistency of its lead character, not to mention jettisoning a fair amount of believability. It's too bad. Mr. Anderson really knows his way around a scare, and "The Call" might serve as a good example of how to direct a thriller. Unfortunately, it's more likely to be remembered as an even better example of how not to write one.

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