Rare is the thriller that goes as completely and utterly wrong as "The Call" does at almost precisely the one-hour mark. Which is a crying shame, because for an hour, this is a riveting, by-the-book kidnapping, an "Amber Alert" with a Hollywood budget and a director with a sense of urgency and camera lenses that put the action, the fear and horror, right in your face.
Brad Anderson ("Transsiberian," "The Machinist") turns this novel procedural — a serial killer hunt set inside LA's 911 Call Center ("The Hive") — into a real edge-of-your-seat thriller. Given Halle Berry, as a veteran 911 operator whose mistake months ago haunts her, and Abigail Breslin as a kidnapped teen on a cellphone from a darkened car trunk, and a half-decent tale of horror, guilt, problem-solving and redemption, Anderson couldn't go far wrong.
Until he, and the movie, do.
But up until then, from the moment Casey (Breslin) makes the frantic, gasping, tearful call to the moment logic takes a holiday, "The Call" works.
Berry's character, Jordan, is the daughter of a cop, dating another cop (Morris Chestnut), somebody whose dad taught her that she has to be able to handle the knowledge "that you might be the difference between somebody living and somebody dying." She's been struggling with that since her blunder led an intruder to a victim six months before.
Now, on an afternoon when she's walking recruits through training at the Hive, another girl is grabbed. This one has a phone and she's calling from the trunk. Breslin ("Little Miss Sunshine") makes us feel her terror, mainly in her voice. Berry wears the dread that panicked voice gives her on her face. She can't help herself. Jordan breaks the cardinal rule of 911 operators — "Never ever make promises. Because you can't keep 'em." She promises this girl she'll live.
"The Call" lets us reason along with the operator and the caller, figuring out options. They are a mix of by-the-book details, and amusing examples of thinking outside the box. And unlike last fall's found-footage 911 kidnapping tale, "Amber Alert," it shows us the kidnapper (Michael Eklund), another in a long line of Norman "Psycho" Bates twitchy, psycho killers.
Anderson teases out solutions, tempts us with bystander help and shows how the system can work in a case like this — linking calls, triangulating cellphone signals (not easy with a disposable phone), dispatching cops, trying to beat the clock they're racing against.
It's only when the story needs to string out its finale that the film goes wrong, only when our Oscar-winning heroine puts down the phone and sets out to do some sleuthing of her own that "The Call" disconnects, turning into something far more generic, far more routine and far less exciting.