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THE CALLING – Review
October 6, 2014
A slip of the tongue would allow you to confuse Canadian police procedural The Calling with Scandinavian police procedural The Killing. What they share is the sense of profoundly disturbing and unpleasant things happening in a proverbial quiet, peaceful, even complacent Nordic country, expressed in cool, desaturated tones and myriad shades of white.
Nobody expects much to happen in a small rural town in late winter, least of all Detective Inspector Hazel Micaleff (Susan Sarandon), preoccupied with the fallout from her bitter divorce and a stoically borne, yet crippling back injury. But then her mother’s friend is found brutally murdered, the throat cut and the face contorted into a strange and unnatural expression.
The discovery is followed almost immediately by another, similar killing. Micallef and her team discover a pattern right across Canada, leading to a horrific, bizarre and inexplicable discovery in a forest in the far west of the country. Meanwhile, a mysterious stranger appears in town, seemingly with remarkable healing powers.
The Calling is adapted from the novel of the same name by Inger Ash Wolfe. Now, Wolfe is actually a pseudonym for the literary novelist Michael Redhill, and here is possibly where some of the problems in the story lie. Redhill/Wolfe wants to recount a complex, difficult, and deeply philosophical story that challenges our ethical and metaphysical position when we have to confront our atavistic feelings around religion and death. But Redhill/ Wolfe wants to do this within the somewhat restrictive genre of a police procedural aimed at the middlebrow market.
I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know exactly how he achieved this in prose, but the script adaptation by Scott Abramovitch manages to deliver only the spume of the philosophical conundrum surrounding the ethics of mercy killing, and the role of religious belief in modern times. At the same time, the story’s delivery is strangely un-mystifying, lacking in genuinely gripping twists and turns or subplots.
Two principal things keep The Calling still watchable. The first is the striking cinematography by David Robert Jones, who shoots wintry southern Ontario (Alice Munro’s country) as a visual combination of Caspar David Friedrich and Andrew Wyeth. Second is, unsurprisingly, Susan Sarandon, delivering an uncompromisingly unglamorous performance as Hazel, a woman wracked by unbearable physical pain, which she refuses to discuss and masks with strenuous quantities of painkillers and alcohol.
Hazel is neither empathetic nor likable, yet as the film goes on, we come to care deeply for her, which makes her final confrontation with her nemesis, a superbly creepy Christopher Heyerdahl (the other standout performance of the film), almost riveting, though it ends far too quickly and abruptly.
Director Jason Stone does not sufficiently explore Hazel’s thantonic urges, which are at the core of the story: we see her stealing pills, and drink-driving, yet there is little sense of her desperate struggle between the wish to live and the wish to end it.
‘Mercy killing’, (or assisted dying) has been in the news regularly, with all the ethical controversy surrounding Dignitas, and it is a valid and worthwhile issue to explore within drama. But The Calling does not really get around to addressing that: it takes a completely different perspective, an unexpectedly religious perspective, when it becomes clear that the plot hinges on a particular aspect of ancient Catholic mysticism, as explained by the old priest, Father Price.
During Donald Sutherland’s enthusiastic performance as the grizzled holy man, it did cross my mind that perhaps this was a horror movie after all, and we would be in for an exorcism or demonic possession or something like that, but it was not to be. Pedant alert: for those who care, they got the Catholic prayer and theology wrong.
Overall, either the 108 minute format is not enough space to develop the complexities that the story potentially deserves (and a six-episode TV treatment would deliver), or the 108 minute format is too long to spend on a story that lacks enough complexity to warrant so much time. There is too little suspense or mystery going on in The Calling.
Explanations fall into place pretty quickly. Worse, the sense of dread and threat never quite materializes. When the characters find themselves in a sticky situation – such as when officer Ben Wingate (Topher Grace) discovers a ghastly secret in a trailer in the forest – there’s just no threat, frankly, nothing really happens.
This is the first theatrical film for TV writer/producer Scott Abramovich, and it appears to be the first feature for Jason Stone. Stone deserves credit for working effectively with actors of the caliber of Sarandon, Ellen Burstyn playing her mother (looking fabulous, I might add), Sutherland and Heyerdahl. On the other hand, Topher Grace’s character, the young cop Wingate, is drastically underdeveloped.
In short, The Calling doesn’t feel like a theatrical movie, despite the presence of major stars delivering solid and effective performances. It feels like a made-for-TV film as the filmmakers fail to follow up on its most intriguing elements and use them to weave a denser and more rewarding texture into the film.
The Calling is out in UK cinemas on October 10th