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Clichés keep ‘The Calling’ from achieving greatness

Susan Sarandon in "The Calling"
Susan Sarandon in "The Calling"
Stage 6

The Calling

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Despite a provocative premise, a prickly star turn by Susan Sarandon, and superb production values, “The Calling” misses being one of the better entries in the horror/thriller genre. This crime procedural, now on VOD and opening in theaters on August 29, has aspirations to be another “Seven” or “Fargo”. But its story mistakes render it an also-ran serial killer thriller like “Jennifer 8” or “The Factory”.

It’s certainly an ambitious movie. The serial killer at the center of a series of murders in and around the sleepy town of Fort Dundas is a religious zealot, prone to intricate presentations of his victims, with their mouths posed to 'speak' an intricate Latin puzzle. He fancies himself an angel of mercy and his articulate presentation of his beliefs is hardly your typical pulp fiction.

Nor is the police force in Fort Dundas the cookie-cutter type of good guys you’d expect from a typical genre piece. The head cop here is a mature woman, Hazel Micallef (Sarandon), and she comes with more baggage than a Samsonite showroom. She’s surly, a drinker, and not particularly prepared for handling such a sophisticated crime spree. Micallef also has a resume filled with humongous mistakes, including a botched suicide attempt, so her need for redemption is what drives this complicated character.

Her colleagues are equally as interesting and specific too. The wonderful Gil Bellows plays her closest and most considerate colleague who is the calm to her storm. Topher Grace plays an earnest new recruit who is smarter than his age would suggest. And even smaller roles get rendered with clever details, like the young secretary whose voice goes up when she’s flirting (Ingénue Katy Breier working wonders with a small part).

Donald Sutherland and Ellen Burstyn play key, supporting roles too and they always add gravitas to any entertainment. In fact, everyone in the cast is terrific, from those playing red herrings to the witnesses who help move the plot along. Kristen Booth contributes some marvelous moments of screen time as a troubled but sincere coffee shop waitress. (Hollywood would be wise to cast her in bigger parts.)

So with all that, and an assured sense of tone and pacing by director Jason Stone, chilly winter cinematography by David Robert Jones, and detailed production design by Oleg M. Savytski, why does this film ultimately fail to live up to greatness? It’s due to its plot, culled from the book by Inger Ash Wolfe, that doesn’t live up to the sophistication around it. It’s a story that grows more and more clichéd as the film goes on, and it falls into too many obvious traps of cheap storytelling.

Screenwriter Scott Abramovitch has worked wonders here with his character development but he fails to avoid the pitfalls of convenient contrivances and too many false scares that betray the smarter elements of the script. For example, why must serial killers always change their M.O.’s to go after the cops? And do we really need to see trained policeman continually enter dangerous scenarios without proper backup? When the audience is smarter than the folks onscreen, one tends to lose empathy.

And a lot of time is wasted in the first 30 minutes of the movie too as it sets up a half dozen male characters that all have slightly raspy voices that could match the serial killer’s voice we only hear in the first half hour. But then shortly after that, Christopher Heyerdahl is revealed as Simon the killer, so why all the red herrings? Did we really need that much misdirection when the script was going to reveal the killer so soon anyway?

It’s moments like those that you’re aware you’re ‘watching a movie’ because they’re tricks, not true parts of the story. It’s a shame because so much of everything else going on in “The Calling” is smarter than that. And when, towards the end, Simon breaks character and starts taunting the police and wasting time going after them, it all becomes too much of a ‘movie movie’. That’s out of character for the complex villain who’s been set up. What happened to his perfect 12-victim plan? And why does he stop posing his victims? It’s like everything good that was set up is thrown out for Hollywood convention.

It’s a shame too because this film also wants to examine a very real issue of how ill-equipped tiny police departments are for handling more sophisticated crimes. This movie could have even been a timely commentary on the Ferguson police debacle if it had stuck to its themes. The character of Micallef means well, but she’s not prepared for the cat & mouse machinations instigated by Simon. But rather than truly show that she’s not capable enough, it forces her into a big ‘Hollywood ending’ where she saves the day a bit too readily.

I'll look forward to what Abrahamovitch writes next. He's got talent. So does director Stone. Together here they do many things so, so right, but then they screw up by adding hoary elements that even CBS-TV procedurals have been wise to avoid for a decade now. There are moments that this film edges close to things like the brilliant TV series of "Fargo" and "True Detective" before it falls back on silly cliches.

Susan Sarandon deserves more lead roles like the rich one she's playing here. She gives a complex, stubborn and serious performance despite the confines of genre. And it’s a well-written role too; one not defined by her femininity or sexuality. Thus, it’s a great shame that she’s acting a character in a smarter picture ultimately than where the story ends up around her. She deserves better. And so do fans of horror and thrillers.