It’s rarely a problem when the heroes of action movies are called into action, but it proves ruinous for The Call, a tense and efficient little thriller right up to the moment when Halle Berry, a 911 operator, decides to leave her desk. A seasoned veteran of “The Hive,” a sophisticated control center that links the city’s 911 operators with first responders, Berry is admired for her quick thinking and calm disposition in puzzling through life-or-death situations on the other end of the line. One night she makes a mistake that leads to the abduction and murder of a teenage girl, and it shakes her confidence deeply—while also setting the table for a boilerplate redemption story. Berry gets her opportunity when she fields another abduction call, this one coming from a teenager (Abigail Breslin) who was kidnapped in a mall parking deck and thrown in the truck of a car.
With Breslin’s disposable cell phone making her near-impossible to trace, the mostly solid second act has Berry settling the girl’s frazzled nerves and offering innovative solutions to alert the authorities to her location. The fact that Berry cannot directly help the victim is key to the suspense: Both women have to operate within confined spaces and limited means, and there’s tension in their mutual blind spots. Director Brad Anderson, a former indie upstart (his Next Stop Wonderland was a famous Sundance overbuy) turned capable genre filmmaker (his moody horror film Session 9 is particularly strong), emphasizes the violence with a distracting stutter effect, but otherwise handles the back-and-forth between Berry and Breslin with swiftness and brio.
But once Berry leaves “The Hive” and tries to hunt Breslin down on her own, The Call sinks from a solid, meat-and-potatoes redemption thriller to a lurid, gratuitous, relentlessly silly revenge story. Suddenly, a premise that began as a simple abduction morphs into a nasty exploitation movie, with an unstoppable monster for a villain, a creepily sexualized child-in-peril, and a lust for payback that goes completely unquestioned. But all that unsavory business aside, the biggest problem with the third act is how the film discards the novelty of its own premise in order to bring its star into the action. When Berry trades her headset for a rock, it’s the bluntest metaphor imaginable for a film that’s completely lost its mind.