There’s a hint of what’s to come in the fact that the opening images of The Calling, which depict the sleepy little Southern Ontario town of Port Dundas as a depopulated zone snoozing under a blanket of snow, remain more or less intact even when a serial killer is loose. Port Dundas remains snoozy and depopulated even when throats are cut and stomachs thrown to the sheepdogs, and so does the movie.
The fact that Susan Sarandon, as the booze-nipping, pill-gulping local detective Hazel Micallef, first appears getting up off her bedroom floor might serve as another warning. But Sarandon is her customary tough, intelligent and resilient self, and the movie wisely (if, in the end, wastefully) casts her as the gravitational pull around which the other major characters orbit: her mother, played by Ellen Burstyn, a former judge who worries about her daughter’s happiness; her skeptical but supportive fellow cop, played by Gil Bellows; and the rookie refugee from Toronto, played by Topher Grace. Each of these folks is rendered with just enough salty individuality to provide hope that The Calling might really be a movie about interesting people who just happen to be hunting a serial killer, and not another serial-killer movie on the hunt for something to divert us from its own genre fatigue.
As the case unfolds, it appears that certain citizens of Port Dundas and elsewhere are not only being murdered but arranged so that their mouths are stuck open as though speaking, and the particular arrangement of each mouth adds up to another letter in a Latin message indicating some manner of ultrahigh-concept religious looniness at work. All of which would be entirely preposterous were it not for the fact that the explaining of it all is left to elder man-of-the-cloth Donald Sutherland, who can explain just about anything and make it sound not only serious but halfway credible.
But what not even Sutherland can do, and which eventually makes you want to lie down on the floor just like Sarandon, is make The Calling convincing or compelling. That early promise of interesting character dynamics is scuttled right around the time the movie gives away who the killer is and we’re left to wonder just how long it will take these decent but woefully undeveloped folks to cotton on to the fact that the new dude in town who looks alarmingly like Max von Sydow and talks about saving eternal souls might be a person of interest. The Calling looks fine, in a generic beige and grey-tinted way, and it comports itself with a general veneer of professionalism that only frustrates because it’s all in the service of a movie so uninspired it seems constantly to be putting itself to sleep before your eyes. The sad thing is, it wasn’t that long ago that the insertion of strong women characters into procedural cop dramas and serial-killer spectacles gave the forms genuinely rejuvenating shots of danger and urgency.
Beginning in 1991 with the first instalment of the equally impressive Prime Suspect on TV and the appearance of The Silence of the Lambs at the movies, the tracking of killers by complex women has been an especially fascinating crime-movie subcategory. Indeed, even such recent forays as last year’s The Fall (with Gillian Anderson tracking a sicko in Belfast), both American and Danish TV versions of The Killing, and Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake (with Elisabeth Moss investigating a child’s disappearance in New Zealand) prove that there’s life in the formula yet, but The Calling seems not to have been paying much attention.
If the movie deserves any credit, it’s for at least tacitly addressing the authenticity gap between real and fictional serial killing that has been legitimately bugging serious students of criminology for decades. Experts have long been saying that real serial killers aren’t charismatic performance-art mutants with off-the-charts charisma, that they’re actually banal, infantile, narcissistic bores. Finally, a movie that gets that part of the profile right.