The 911 operator is an incredibly important but entirely marginal figure in American popular culture. This character facilitates countless movie and television plots -- connecting victims to police offers -- but receives almost none of their own. What does it take to do this job? How does it weigh on the people who perform it? When 'The Call' slows down from its breathless (and, ultimately, brainless) thriller pace, it asks some interesting questions.

Its heroine is, obviously, a 911 operator, Jordan (Halle Berry), who works answering calls for Los Angeles Emergency Services. One ordinary day -- and one thing 'The Call' makes fascinatingly clear is that every day for a 911 operator is both an utterly ordinary and utterly crazy day -- Jordan is connected with a girl (Evie Thompson) whose house is in the midst of a break-in. Jordan helps instruct the girl to hide upstairs, but when their line is suddenly disconnected, she makes a terrible, albeit entirely instinctual mistake: she hits redial. The phone rings, the burglar -- who also happens to be a teenage blonde fetishizing serial killer -- hears it, and finds the girl. A short while later, the girl turns up dead and Jordan, wracked with guilt, realizes she might not be cut out for this high stressful job.

Faster than you can throw up a "Six Months Later" title card, it's six months later, and Jordan is now teaching new recruits how to become 911 operators. But wouldn't you know, she happens to be back down in "The Hive" where all LAPD emergency calls are answered, right when another teenage girl (Abigail Breslin) is kidnapped? And wouldn't you know it, it's the same guy who kidnapped and killed the first girl? And wouldn't you know it, Jordan's cop boyfriend (Morris Chestnut) is the one dispatched to save her? And wouldn't you know it, the first operator who takes Breslin's call freaks out, leaving Jordan to sort it out and, possibly, to redeem herself?

The less one ponders these coincidences the better, and once 'The Call' revs up to full speed, director Brad Anderson ('Session 9,' 'Happy Accidents,' lots of TV) rarely gives you time to consider the absurdities. Breslin's Casey is trapped in the killer's trunk with a prepaid cell phone that doesn't have a GPS, which means Jordan's in a race against time to find Casey before Mr. Kidnap-and-Kill arrives at his destination and does horrible things to her. Jordan's attempts to locate Casey using the various items locked with her in the trunk amounts to solving a puzzle while a clock ticks away -- suspense atop suspense and as long as Casey stays trapped and Jordan stays glued to that line, 'The Call' is a reasonably effective thriller, a sort of low-rent 'Rear Window' with two helpless protagonists for the price of one. The details of The Hive, the emotional turmoil of its staff, all add a nice amount of memorable character detail.

But then all that detail starts undermining the movie's increasingly silly story. One of Jordan's former trainees makes an interesting remark that comes back to haunt the film: this job, she says of 911 operators, is like reading a story without ever getting to know its ending. You talk to someone until the police arrive, and then the cops get there and you hang up, and you never find out whether the person on the other end of the line lived or died, got away or got arrested. That's the basis for some real rich, existential drama -- you can envision a version of 'The Call' that's all about Berry's character helping Casey as best she can, losing track of her, and then wondering "What if?" until the end of time.

This, regrettably, is not that version of 'The Call.' This is the version where the 911 operator takes matters into her own hands, and tracks down the serial killer on her own using her unique ability to know what a flagpole sounds like to find Casey when no one else can (sadly, this is not a joke). This is the version where a fairly grounded suspense thriller turns into a bad version of 'Saw'-meets-'Psycho.' This is the version where you're the one wondering "What if?" until the end of time, as you hold onto the glimpses of greatness that remain, almost vestigially, in 'The Call.'


'The Call' is in theaters now.

Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’