Susan Sarandon. Ellen Burstyn. Donald Sutherland. Topher Grace. For various stretches of time—shorter for Grace, much longer for the other three—entire Hollywood productions were built around the considerable talents of all four performers, but eventually even big stars are relegated to the status of working actors. And at the end of the line, mediocrities like the Canadian thriller The Calling are waiting for them, offering modest roles for presumably modest paychecks, and a diminished audience of home viewers. These actors’ ardent professionalism—combined perhaps with the pokey storytelling—helps tamp down the hysteria that might be expected to spring from the premise of a Catholic serial killer. Then again, this grisly murder party could have used some livening up.
First shown peeling herself off the bedroom floor after another night of drinking and pill-popping, Sarandon stars as Detective Hazel Micallef, the presiding officer at a station in the small town of Port Dundas, Ontario. The lack of crime in Port Dundas suits her addictions, which she only half-heartedly attempts to hide from her partner Ray (Gil Bellows) and her widowed mother Emily (Burstyn)—and which are explained via a tedious backstory. When an old woman is found with her neck slashed, it’s the first murder in four years, but the circumstances are bizarre enough to lead Hazel to suspect there are more victims (and soon-to-be victims) out there. Not long after Ben (Topher Grace), a young detective from Toronto, shows up to join the team, Hazel and company piece together a series of murders that appear to be religiously motivated. Apparently, not all the loopholes were closed around “Thou shalt not kill.”
The Calling isn’t a whodunit. The man responsible for the murders, played by Christopher Heyerdahl with an impressive Tom Noonan-like gait, is revealed early, and his activities are followed in parallel with those trying to stop him. The Calling isn’t a whydunit, either, since Sutherland’s priest turns up to explain the reasoning behind the killer’s citing of an oblique Latin phrase. So what is The Calling? It could generously be referred to as a character study about a detective haunted by her past, and a case that forces her to confront that past in Biblical terms. It could less generously be referred to as a pseudo-spiritual thriller that tries to literalize scriptural mythos in the same bloody terms David Fincher’s Seven used to literalize the Seven Deadly Sins, only far less artfully.
Whatever the case, director Jason Stone treats the material with a seriousness and emotional gravity that saps the energy right out of it. Just as surely as Hazel can track the killer’s movements west to east across Canada, The Calling can be graphed as their two storylines converging ever-so-slowly toward a third-act confrontation. Once it arrives, the film makes the closing argument in the case for it not being ridiculous hokum, but that argument isn’t convincing, despite all the citing of scripture, all the work on Hazel’s backstory, and a Sarandon performance that provides much of the gravitas Stone is seeking. It’s hard to thread that needle between the grotesque and the profound like Seven did. The Calling has a killer who spends hours carefully arranging his victims’ mouths to convey a specific message. Making a thoughtful, dignified thriller from there is an uphill proposition.