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‘The Calling’ is worth a look

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REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/21st Century Media

The Canadian crime thriller, “The Calling,” depicts a female law enforcement official, who is tracking down an elusive serial killer.

Detective Inspector Hazel Micallef (Susan Sarandon) is stationed in her hometown, the sleepy Canadian town of Dundas in Ontario. We meet our protagonist as she struggles to drag herself off the floor of her bedroom. She remains addled from her ingestion of whiskey and pain killers the night before. We become aware that this isn’t some isolated incident, but part of her customary pattern of self-destructive behavior. She continues to live with her mother, Emily (Ellen Burstyn), a retired judge, who is concerned with Hazel’s downward slide.

Hazel’s back story is gradually revealed. She is racked with virtually constant pain, arising from a herniated disc. Hazel has a miscarriage in her past, which is the source of ongoing anguish for her. As a consequence of a suicide attempt, she has been passed over and has been ruled out for a promotion to fill the empty head position of the department.

Although Hazel doesn’t have the coveted title of police chief, she is its senior member and de facto leader. She constantly squabbles with her second in command, Ray Green (Gil Bellows). However, it becomes apparent that he genuinely cares for her.

The department receives a new transfer from Toronto, Ben Wingate (Topher Grace). Ben is full of enthusiasm and displays an eager, can-do attitude. Both Hazel and Ray are puzzled by the fact that the young man would abandon the excitement and potential professional fulfillment of living in Toronto for a dead-end position in Dundas. They can’t contain their incredulity and ask him directly to explain his decision to move to their small town. It turns out that Ben’s male life partner had recently died. When Ben’s colleagues on the force learn of his sexual orientation, it prompts a homophobic backlash. To escape it, he has transferred to this provincial outpost.

There are few challenges to the small police department of Dundas. All that abruptly changes shortly after Ben’s arrival. A local octogenarian is found killed in her living room. The crime scene is bizarre.  The victim’s head has been virtually decapitated with seeming surgical precision. Afterwards, the killer held her head for at least an hour as rigor mortis set in to create a garish death mask. There are no signs of forced entry. Who would commit such a crime?

A few days later, another murder victim is found in a nearby town. He has been posthumously disemboweled. His face has also been carefully positioned. Hazel postulates that a serial killer is on the loose. Hazel petitions her supervisor in Toronto for help and he dismissively scoffs, “Do you know what we call two murders in Toronto? The morning shift!”

There is evidence the killer has some twisted theological motivations. Hazel consults Father Price (Donald Sutherland). He expounds on certain arcane Latin idioms before veering off into a discussion of the early Christian mystics, centuries before.

This film bears obvious similarities to “The Silence of the Lambs,” which won five Oscars. That film revolved around Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), an ambitious, fresh-scrubbed F.B.I. agent and a brilliant, manipulative serial killer, Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins),who harbored cannibalistic appetites.

By contrast, “The Calling” provides a dissipated, older law female enforcement, beset with serious substance abuse problems and a deep-seated sense of weltschmerz. Her shortcomings are telegraphed when she purloins some painkillers from the decedent’s supply of prescriptions at the first crime scene. Isn’t this a slippery slope? How different is it from pocketing some cash or jewelry lying in the decedent’s home? Nevertheless, Sarandon’s performance is engaging. She infuses her character with an endearing pluckiness and candor. Her interactions with her mother, fellow officers, a not so secret paramour, and random townsfolk are all tinged with an interesting edge. She emerges as a decidedly imperfect, albeit sympathetic character.

This is a small budget film with limited theatrical release. It has been largely relegated to the DVD and video on demand markets. For a film of this sort, it has assembled a remarkable set of performances. In addition to Sarandon’s star turn, the film offers Burstyn, Sutherland, Grace, and Bellows, all of whom provide excellent performances. On its face, this film is a standard police procedural. However, it is distinguished by the textured portrait of a troubled protagonist, the complexity of the characters’ interpersonal dynamics, myriad parenthetical details, and the sustained brooding tone of the film.

The film is adapted from a novel written by Michael Redhill (using the literary cognomen, Inger Ash Wolfe). The source novel and screenplay are plagued with some plot twists that seem far-fetched. However, in his debut as a feature director, Jason Stone, maintains the film’s crisp pacing and atmospheric quality. Impressively, despite the fact that the identity of the killer becomes apparent near the film’s outset, Stone maintains the dramatic tension of “The Calling.”  It is difficult to reconcile the decidedly dark tone of “The Calling” with Stone’s background. He served as both executive producer and screenwriter of last year’s comedic lark, “This Is the End.”

Although “The Calling” invokes tropes familiar to the serial killer genre, it has many worthy aspects to recommend it.

“The Calling”: ***1/2 R (for violent content, disturbing images and language) 108 minutes

 

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films to recommend it. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

 

 

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