The Calling ✮✮✮
by Glenn Lovell
For a quick lesson in how actresses of a certain age are dealing ‒ or not ‒ with current casting opportunities, watch “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “The Calling” back-to-back. In the new sci-fi fantasy, Glenn Close, 67, plays the leader of an empire under siege from evil forces. Kabuki-white, with a slash of red lipstick and bad Princess Leia coif, she looks about as uncomfortable as an actress can look. In “The Calling” (now on VOD), Susan Sarandon, also 67, plays Hazel Micallef, a small-town Canadian police chief. Her character is smart, surly, tenacious, someone you actually want to pass two hours with.
Obviously wary of those eccentric grandmother cameos (see Jane Fonda in “Monster-in-Law”), Sarandon remains ever on the lookout for decent character parts, assignments that extend her best work (in “Lorenzo’s Oil,” “Safe Passage” and, of course, “Dead Man Walking”) without repeating it.
Sarandon and first-time director Jason Stone take a half page from Frances McDormand and the Coen brother. Their Ontario-set “The Calling,” based on the first of Inger Ash Wolfe’s Hazel Micallef mysteries, is a gray-to-grisly whodunit that’s anchored by a strong, though hardly likable, central character. The embittered, pill-popping Micallef is no Marge Gunderson; she doesn’t know from peppy smalltalk.
The film’s first shot is of an empty bed. It’s daybreak. A hand reaches up from the floor, desperately searching for pain meds. Hazel, we quickly learn, is dealing with a lot of “personal shit,” such as a near-incapacitating herniated disc, an ex-husband she hasn’t fully gotten over, and a boss who is looking for an infraction, any infraction, to shelve Fort Dundas’s top cop.
For all her baggage, Hazel is still a damned good detective. And when an elderly, church-going woman turns up dead, her neck sliced clear through to the spine, Hazel’s instincts tell her this the work of someone who has done it before and most likely will do it again. Before you can say “ ‘Fargo’ meets ‘Se7en’” the bodies begin to pile up. The only thing tying the crimes together: each corpse’s mouth is agape, frozen mid-scream.
With Sarandon aboard, Stone and company were able to attract a first-rate supporting cast that includes Ellen Burstyn as Hazel’s concerned mother and Donald Sutherland as a suspiciously giddy priest-linguist. Less well known but equally good are Topher Grace as the new detective who quickly becomes indispensable and Christopher Heyerdahl, who, as the gaunt, soft-spoken mystic-holistic “doctor,” makes the year’s creepiest entrance.
“The Calling” runs out of gas in the third act when the killer and his motive come more into focus and you sense the filmmakers are scrambling to gather up loose ends; but this shouldn’t keep you from checking out one of the year’s most watchable thrillers. Indeed, Sarandon’s performance is so assured and nuanced this could be the start of a wonderful friendship — and a Hazel Micallef franchise.
THE CALLING ✮✮✮ With Susan Sarandon, Topher Grace, Christopher Heyerdahl, Ellen Burstyn, Donald Sutherland. Directed by Jason Stone; scripted by Scott Abramovitch from novel by Inger Ash Wolfe. 108 min. Rated R (for violence, profanity, gruesome makeup effects)