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Tension and technology

"The Call" 

Tension and technology

Her appearance in "The Call" suggests that Halle Berry, who's been very busy lately, occupies a position in Hollywood as a kind of female counterpart to those male stars who specialize in action movies. Aside from playing Catwoman, she also serves as one of the charter members of the X-Men in that blockbuster franchise. Most recently, she appeared in multiple roles in the many-layered, fascinating, flawed "Cloud Atlas," both as hero and victim of her particular stories.

That hero/victim duality victim nicely defines the traditional role of leading female actors in American cinema. Beginning with the wonderful Fay Wray in "The Most Dangerous Game" and "King Kong," the scream queen ultimately manages to defeat the menace that threatens her throughout the initial scenes and sequences of any given movie. That pattern distinguishes the work of such women as Adrienne Barbeau, Linda Hamilton, and Sigourney Weaver; it describes Berry's roles in "Gothika" and now, "The Call."

In "The Call" Berry plays Jordan Turner, a 911 dispatcher for the Los Angeles police department who encounters, first electronically, then physically, that favorite contemporary villain, a serial killer. The movie opens with Turner responding to a call from a panic-stricken teenager who hears a prowler outside her home. Turner alerts the police and guides the young woman to a hiding place, but the intruder finds her and mocks Turner on the victim's cell phone.

The action restarts six months later, as a guilt-stricken Turner, still suffering anxiety attacks from her experience, finds it all happening again. A frightened teenager, Casey Weldon (Abigail Breslin), abducted from a shopping mall, calls 911 from the trunk of the kidnapper's car. Employing her considerable skills and a deep sense of empathy, Jordan Turner tries to calm her and talk her through her ordeal.

The movie proceeds swiftly along the parallel tracks of Jordan Turner's desperate efforts to guide Casey through the horrible situation and Casey's desperate efforts to escape her captor. Both of them come up with some ingenious ploys, but the kidnapper, growing increasingly vicious, foils them again and again. All of that action plays out within the context of Jordan's attempts to locate the kidnapper's car on the Los Angeles freeways, and to identify the man himself.

Like so many American movies, "The Call" creates much of its appeal from its concentration on sheer process. It shows in fascinating detail the procedures by which the 911 dispatchers and the police track down a single car among the millions on the Los Angeles streets, then identify its driver, and engage in pursuit. Refreshingly, although the automobile occupies a central place in the plot, the director, Brad Anderson, refrains from the usual high-speed chase, punctuated by collisions and explosions.

Perhaps because of his lengthy experience in television, Anderson maintains an admirable efficiency throughout the movie, extracting considerable tension from the materials without ever diminishing its sense of authenticity. The rich context of contemporary high-tech police methods never interferes with the film's fine sense of pacing. He also employs a purely visual means of providing a sad and even sympathetic back story for the criminal's motivation and methods; the kidnapper, Michael Foster (Michael Eklund), owes more than a little of his personality and actions to the immortal Norman Bates.

Looking a little less glamorous than usual, the beautiful Halle Berry performs adequately in a role that fits neatly with the characters she's played recently, with a combination of emotionalism and cool control, and in this case intimating the awareness that Jordan Turner herself teeters on the brink of hysteria and despair. Abigail Breslin, who must project suffering and frenzy practically throughout the entire film, looks exactly like the insecure adolescent she portrays, but also convincingly demonstrates that her horrible experience enables her to find a kind of maturity.

Although playing a psychotic killer seems somewhat less than rewarding, Michael Eklund may actually deserve the most praise for his performance. His determined intensity, which approaches closer and closer to utter insanity as his situation grows more desperate, expresses itself in some absolutely convincing facial expressions and body language. The possible drawback to his success may also derive from Anthony Perkins's Norman Bates — a career sometimes blighted by typecasting as a madman.

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