Pal Sletaune’s pics are stylish and creepy, but “Babycall” needs more time in script kindergarten. A tense tale of a paranoid woman desperate to keep her kid away from her violent ex-hubby, the helmer’s fourth feature at times feels like a cross between “The Sixth Sense” and “Shutter Island,” but too often uses a heightened atmosphere of dread to spackle over holes that widen considerably upon contemplating the overstretched premise. Brisk sales (18 international markets and counting) will cheer psychological-thriller fans, further drawn by star Noomi Rapace (the “Millennium” trilogy), who nabbed Rome’s actress prize.
A clearly strung-out Anna (Rapace) and her 8-year-old son Anders (Vetle Qvenild Werring) arrive in a barren new apartment, hoping their location will remain unknown to Anna’s ex, who tried to drown the boy. Anna doesn’t want to let Anders out of her sight for a moment, insisting he sleep in her bed and only allowing him to go to school because social services won’t let her teach him at home.
She buys a baby monitor (also known as a babycall) from shy but solicitous salesman Helge (Kristoffer Joner, star of Sletaune’s “Next Door”), which makes Anders happy since he can now sleep in his own room while remaining within earshot. But suddenly one night, Anna is startled by a violent screaming match coming from the monitor; she checks on Anders, who’s fast asleep. The next day at the store, Helge reassures her that the babycall must have picked up someone else’s monitor.
It’s a great premise: What parent wouldn’t be freaked out? Sletaune builds the air of mystery, forcing auds to question the nature of Helge’s motives, the role of Anders’ malevolent, unexplained schoolfriend (Torkil Johannes Hoeg Swensen), and Anna’s general state of mind, even when she admits to seeing things. All this works on a superficial level, yet viewers inclined to think while they watch won’t be able to shake a nagging suspicion that they’re being hoodwinked, notwithstanding the helmer’s goal of conflating the real and the imaginary.
Indeed, the copout resolution is unlikely to satisfy anyone, and a considered reflection on the various elements reveals a host of unexplained MacGuffins more likely to induce exasperation than chills. Sletaune is adept at conjuring taut situations with a balance of cold visuals and tight editing, but such cinematic devices aren’t enough to convince when the plot feels like a cheat.
Rapace keeps the edgy mood going with her stressed-out perf, though it’s her moments of quiet vulnerability rather than the one-note tension that give the role some depth. Best of all is Joner’s calm playing, which defies attempts to place Helge in the good or evil column until the very end. Visuals feature diffused colors that tend toward frigid blues and grays, Scandinavian cinema’s current default mode.