The Calling – Reviewed by David Turpin
Directed by Jason Stone
Starring: Susan Sarandon, Topher Grace, Donald Sutherland, Ellen Burstyn
Transplanting the dogged-but-damaged heroine and chilly atmospherics of The Killing to a Canadian location, The Calling is a serial killer yarn adapted from the first of a series of novels written by the poet and playwright Michael Redhill under the tellingly Scandinavian pseudonym Inger Ash Wolfe. Oscar-winner Susan Sarandon takes the lead as detective Hazel Micaleff, whose pill popping and hard drinking is counterbalanced by an aptitude for solving grisly crimes. Sounds intriguing, right?
You’d be surprised. A blandly shot and anonymously directed procedural, The Calling owes its few distinguishing features to a committed turn from Sarandon and some theological trappings straight from the “Creepy Catholics” hymn-sheet. Like another recent TV series, The Fall, The Calling is not a whodunit, but a pas de deux between a lone-wolf heroine and a lunatic, revealed early in the action, whose hang-ups mirror her own – in this case in rather schematic ways. Played by the ominously bearded Christopher Heyerdahl, said lunatic is offing Catholic Canadians in gruesome fashion, and Micaleff soon discovers that his motivation lies in an obscure religious ritual explained to her by screwy priest Donald Sutherland (who gets to deliver more exposition in his two scenes than many actors do in a lifetime). From there on out, it’s another day at the office, as desks are strewn with autopsy reports and a rookie detective (Topher Grace) walks into jeopardy while superiors shout down the phone at him. A late- developing quasi-supernatural wrinkle threatens to add colour, but the prevailing impression is stubbornly grey.
Still, it’s good to see Sarandon lead a film again, especially after the grab-bag of cameos and supporting turns with which she has lately been making do. She always knuckles down, even to parts that are beneath her considerable talents, and she gives this one her best shot. Nobody does flinty and rueful quite like Susan Sarandon, which is just as well, as that’s pretty much all that’s asked of her here. The Micaleff character might lend herself better to a TV series, and it’s easy to imagine this actress making more of her in that format, but the big screen is much less forgiving of such generic material, even with a charismatic lead.
The big screen is also much less forgiving of howling continuity gaffes, and The Calling has some choice examples. One glaring error – in which a photograph of a corpse is clearly visible on the police station bulletin-board before it has even been discovered – makes nonsense of a central suspense sequence, and suggests the film has been heavily re-jigged. More egregiously again, the filmmakers don’t appear to have done the most basic theological research – a Catholic priest solemnly intones the Anglican “Our Father”, while a Catholic nun refers to mass as “Sunday service”. The religious trappings are, of course, only window dressing for the murder plot, but the sloppiness of these errors undermines the basic credibility of the world in which this story takes place, and robs the action of what suspense it possesses. Finally, although it’s heartening to see an actress in her 60s take centre stage, that doesn’t give The Calling a free pass for miserably squandering the talents of Ellen Burstyn. One of the finest actresses of her generation, and still a commanding presence at 81, Burstyn is thrown away here in a thankless role as Micaleff’s long-suffering mother.