According to Christopher Booker, there are only seven stories to tell, no matter the genre. Within the serial killer genre, we see even fewer. Each begins with a killer, see, who goes on a very specific binge for a reason that will be disclosed. This gets the attention of a weary detective in some dark city, who inevitably confronts the killer directly, which results in a dramatic climax, either fully expected or tragically surprising.
It’s a formula that can work, even when it’s plain enough in films we might consider classics in the genre, say, The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en. But it is a pretty hard and fast formula, which means that serial killer filmmakers face challenges if they want to do something even a little different.
With The Calling, director Jason Stone is working from a competent script by Scott Abramovitch, which is in turn based on a novel by Inger Ash Wolfe. The film offers a richly drawn portrait of its heroine, the set-upon, alcoholic, pill-popping Hazel Micallef (Susan Sarandon), acting commanding officer at a small city police station in Ontario, Canada. In addition to her addictions, Hazel suffers from a bad back, questionable judgment on police matters, a boss (Varney, played by Shane Daly) in Toronto not inclined to give her any kind of break, and guilt over a baby who died. She’s also living with her mother (Ellen Burstyn), a retired judge, who studies and states her disappointment with Hazel’s every move.
The killer, meanwhile, leaves plenty of perplexing clues as to his intentions. But you really only need to know this particular disturbed individual, known as Simon (Christopher Heyerdahl), considers his killings a potent religious ritual. Micallef and her aggrieved partner Ray (Gil Bellows) work to put these clues together with the help of an eager, young officer, Ben Wingate (Topher Grace), transferred from Toronto after losing his longtime boyfriend.
It’s fairly standard stuff, right through to an ending that feels as rushed and ham-handed as the beginning of the film feels curiously intriguing, with a slower pace that suggests bigger things will be at work than just another stackable serial killer affair. Stone makes smart use of Sarandon, who plays Hazel as another of her tough but still vulnerable characters, and also the cold and desolate landscape, an effective backdrop for Hazel’s flat affect. Her edginess serves as a contrast, however formulaic, with the tranquil demeanor of the killer, who sports a priest-like beard, high on the cheek and carefully manicured. In fact, he has the sedate disposition of someone who recognizes his deep faith without irony or question, seeming far better settled than Father Price, a linguist and priest played by Donald Sutherland, who helps Hazel solve part of the puzzle.
If the film plays one trick to its advantage, it’s that the killer, rather than being a typically twisted and macabre figure, is a calmer and less irritating figure than Hazel, whose rueful self-hatred begins to grind. This makes us wonder about our allegiance to her. At one point, displaying an alarming recklessness, she ignores her seasoned fellow detective Ray, and sends young Ben into the maw of the killer’s latest escapade without letting him call for back-up and securing the area first, a senseless order.
Rather than sweep such questionable judgment under the rug—after all, how many “on the edge” cops in these movies routinely make insanely bad decisions only to be inexplicably rewarded by the killer’s proving their hunch to be on the money?—the film uses this moment to turn us even further away from Hazel. Like her fellow officers, we can see the delusions seducing her, and in that moment, we fear for her the way we might an elderly relative whose grip on reality has eroded.
Related to this turn-around, this challenge to our assumptions about the heroic detective in such stories, The Calling also takes pains to point out the obvious pratfalls of making yet another serial killer film in the first place. When Hazel travels to Toronto in order to request more man power from Varney, who clearly wants her to be someone else’s problem, she starts talking about the string of murders, likely suspects, and her investigation. But he quickly cuts her off: “Oh, good God,” Varney says in tired exasperation. “Do you know what we call two murders here? The morning shift.”