"The Call" Thrills But Can't Stick Its Landing

Despite her Oscar-winning pedigree, Halle Berry has been relatively quiet in recent years – she hasn’t starred in a major theatrical release in a half-decade. Miss Berry has spent the interim in the occasional supporting role (“New Year’s Eve” and “Cloud Atlas”) and headlining straight-to-DVD fare (“Dark Tide”). In the pool of post-Oscar filmographies, Berry has been treading water as so many do (see Charlize Theron, Cuba Gooding Jr.), showing no signs of a return to form. Her latest effort isn’t anything more than a modestly entertaining horror-thriller, but Berry’s performance is top-notch and should go a long way in reminding audiences that she’s more than a pretty face. “The Call” strikes a bizarre but engaging chord for much of its running time, and its successes are largely indebted to its lead actress.

The screenplay quickly throws us into a rarely seen but endlessly fascinating world in which hordes of 911 operators handle daunting situations with rote calmness. Berry stars as one of those operators, Jordan Turner, whose professional and personal lives become entwined through a small but significant mental lapse. When Turner gets a call from a teenage girl in the midst of a home invasion, the operator makes an innocent mistake that allows the intruder to locate his victim. The girl is abducted, leaving Turner wracked with guilt. She immediately gives up her headset for a training position, despite objections from her boss and police officer-boyfriend, Paul (Morris Chestnut).

Six months later, a fellow operator gets a similar call from a girl who’s been abducted from a mall parking garage. The girl, Casey (Abigail Breslin), is calling from the trunk of a stolen car driven by a nondescript, lanky, middle-aged white man (played by Michael Eklund). A nearby Turner jumps on the line, determined to save the girl from an all too familiar fate. The ensuing car chase makes up the film’s second act, and it’s an old-fashioned pulse-pounder. Director Brad Anderson expertly weaves back and forth between the victim, the driver, and Turner, relying on some clever staging and a brief but memorable performance by Michael Imperioli (“The Sopranos”) as an innocent bystander.

The writers do lean on clichés, but the dosage is palatable and the familiar narrative spirals are necessarily to ramp up the tension. The screenplay does well in explaining inconsistencies without coming across as cheating – for example, Casey has a disposable phone, meaning it can’t be easily traced. As the abductor becomes more agitated by Casey’s escape attempts, his demeanor becomes more and more unsettling, and Eklund’s performance goes a long way in selling the suspense. If we didn’t find the character so threatening, the film would deflate, no matter how well drawn the other roles were.

The first two-thirds of the picture straddle the line between competent thriller and something more. When it works, it really works, mostly thanks to the story’s primary motif – the dichotomy of a 911 operator’s life. What these people do is remarkable, and seeing them in extended action – no matter how fictionalized – is eye-opening. The script isn’t as revealing as it might have been, but it paints a solid picture of the lifestyle – one that has been seldom seen on screen.

Regrettably, the third act can’t close the deal. When Turner takes the initiative to confront the abductor on his turf, the story goes irreparably off the rails and the ending is as unsatisfying as it is stupid. What was once a stirring thriller becomes an ugly, violent mess, and the last two minutes of the picture are mind-bendingly terrible. While the director’s intermittently odd camera work throughout is puzzling, the writers completely drop the ball in the pic’s waning moments, betraying their characters with a lack of emotional payoff and ludicrous decision-making skills. But while “The Call” does wipe out just short of the finish line – which is quite disappointing – it doesn’t negate its accomplishments. It’s a surprisingly proficient thriller – even more proficient for the viewer who bails before the final scene.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: March 15, 2013
Studio: TriStar Pictures (Sony)
Director: Brad Anderson
Screenwriter: Rich D’Ovidio
Starring: Halle Berry, Abigail Breslin, Morris Chestnut, Michael Eklund, Michael Imperioli
MPAA Rating: R (for violence, disturbing content and some language)