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The Call

We hear The Call and, for about three-quarters of its runtime, we answer. This is a twisty, compact thriller that completely skids off the rails before it's through. Which is a shame, because it features Halle Berry's best performance in a long, long time, and because director Brad Anderson (Transsiberian) mines Nancy Grace Era paranoia about sex offenders and serial killers to palpable effect.

Berry plays Jordan, a 911 emergency operator in Los Angeles, who spends her days taking call after call, most of them definitely not emergencies. There's the lonely drunk who always dials 911 just for company. Endless reports of missing cats and other animals on the loose, and even the odd pizza order every now and then. But then Jordan gets a true emergency call from Casey (Abigail Breslin), a girl who's been abducted at a shopping mall and is stuck in the trunk of her kidnapper's car as he speeds out of the city. It becomes clear from details Casey gives about her assailant that it's the same guy who mutilated and murdered another girl. A girl who also called Jordan right before she died. Jordan's still nursing grief and regret that emergency responders weren't able to get there in time, and so she makes it her mission not to let history repeat itself with Casey.

Much of The Call consists of close-up shots of Breslin, confined to the dark interior of a trunk, intercut with close-up shots of Berry talking into her hands-free phone. It demands a lot from both actors to modulate their performances so that we're getting more from them than abject terror (from Breslin) and barely hidden terror (from Berry), and both actresses more than meet that challenge. There's a really nice exchange early on when Jordan tries to calm down a panic-stricken Casey by asking her what her favorite movie is. (You'll have to see the movie to find out the answer.) And their phone conversation quickly becomes an intricate display of escape artistry as Jordan walks Casey through several possible ways she can get out of the trunk, or at least signal for help. That WWE Studios (yes, that's World Wrestling Entertainment for you) co-produced a movie about two women using their wits to combat violence from men is pretty impressive. Though maybe the fact that the WWE is a company devoted to entertainment taking place inside an enclosed ring, explains the film's affinity for claustrophobia.

Anderson keeps upping the ante as Casey's kidnapper encounters multiple strangers who know he's up to no good and try to free the poor girl trapped in the trunk. But unlike Hitchcock, who would have made the scenario far more perverse by encouraging some identification with the kidnapper, in The Call he's nothing more than a one-dimensional psycho, a bogeyman driving a Camry. This is a movie for people who love to spend their nights watching HLN and think that any stranger they encounter may possibly want to torture them to death.

Yet, The Call doesn't become truly sensationalistic until its final 20 minutes, when Berry's Jordan decides to leave her call-center desk, venture out into the field, and attempt the rescue of Casey herself. On her own. It's a violation of an otherwise suspenseful parallel-editing structure that's so effective because it's as old as D.W. Griffith.

Once I was attending a screening of Rear Window at a Chicago repertory theater, and there was an audience member who suggested Hitchcock's film would have been better if Jimmy Stewart had left his apartment and, broken legs be damned, chased down Raymond Burr's Thorwald around New York in an epic mano-a-mano pursuit. Of course, that would completely ruin the concept of the movie. Maybe that audience member was Brad Anderson, because that's exactly what happens in The Call. The movie ends up in a dead zone.