If nothing else, consider “The Call’’ an educational experience. What happens when you call 911? Here’s Halle Berry as LAPD operator Jordan Turner explaining it all to us and a handful of onscreen recruits: The airy call center known as the Hive, the codes and procedures, the tricks of the trade (don’t make promises, keep your emotional distance, expect to hear from people asking directions to Starbucks).
We know Jordan’s a battle-scarred veteran because we’ve seen her lose a kidnapped girl (Evie Louise Thompson) to a heavy-breathing psychopath (Michael Eklund) in the harrowing opening minutes of “The Call.’’ Additional tip: If you lose the connection, don’t call the caller back. The killer will hear the phone ring. Oops.
This being the movies, Jordan gets a second chance when the psycho strikes again, snatching Los Angeles teenager Casey (Abigail Breslin, going from “Little Miss Sunshine’’ to Little Miss Nightmare) from a shopping mall parking lot. Casey has a cellphone, but it’s a disposable and can’t be traced — otherwise “The Call’’ would be 15 minutes long.
Instead, the movie’s 90 minutes of effective, grueling, increasingly ugly, eventually ridiculous suspense. As LA’s finest (including Jordan’s dreamboat boyfriend, played by Morris Chestnut) scramble to find the maroon Camaro with Casey in its trunk, “The Call’’ works as many variations on its set-up as possible. Those who cross paths with the villain — like Michael Imperioli (“The Sopranos’’) as a livery driver — don’t fare so well. But Jordan forges a bond with Casey over favorite movies (’’Bridesmaids’’), common astrological signs (Capricorn), and the proper etiquette of taillight removal.
You’ve seen pieces of this movie in “Psycho,’’ “Silence of the Lambs,’’ and 2004’s “Cellular.’’ Still, the early scenes in the Hive give “The Call’’ a needed novelty: It’s a workplace drama, and the work is responding to other people’s desperate worst-case scenarios.
But it’s also a genre exercise, which means the movie has to get dumber and dumber as it conforms to Hollywood’s notions of audience expectations. It means Jordan has to go after the psycho herself, has to go into that dark bunker alone, has to — well, I won’t spoil the ending, but it leaves common sense far behind, the better to cater to our bloodlust.
The performances are fine. Berry sets her jaw, ignores her poodle haircut, and sticks to business, while Breslin allows herself to be put through the wringer on her way to a deserved grown-up career. As the psycho, Eklund twitches and sweats real good. But it needs to be asked: What on earth is director Brad Anderson doing here? The man who made the delicate Boston romance “Next Stop Wonderland’’ (1998), the creepy Christian-Bale-gets-skeletal drama “The Machinist’’ (2004), and the baroque Euro-thriller “Transsiberian’’ (2008) has gone down-market, with seamy, exploitive touches like fish-eye lenses pushed repeatedly into victims’ sobbing faces.
Maybe Anderson wants to sell out, but he’s not very good at it. If the early scenes in “The Call’’ pull you in with their sharply crafted suspense, the last third has the dispiriting funk of a talented filmmaker throwing in the towel. Is there a 911 for directors?