Straining for the spiritual gravitas of David Fincher’s Se7en, The Calling centers around a dulcet-toned herbalist-cum-serial killer, Simon (Christopher Heyerdahl), who co-opts an obscure Latin phrase as his rallying cry and purports to aid people’s physical misery by dispatching them as offerings in the name of Christ. As the film doesn’t conceal the man’s identity, director Jason Stone is able to focus on the dueling narratives of Simon on his religiously fanatic quest and divorced small-town detective Hazel Micallef (Susan Sarandon) as she and her team, the loyal local (Gil Bellows) and the eager newbie (Topher Grace), assemble the investigation’s pieces. This intentionally eliminates much of the suspense, particularly because Hazel’s health issues—a bad back she self-medicates with painkillers and booze—betray an obvious arc whereby she will confront the killer and be offered her own opportunity for physical and spiritual healing.
The Calling is less grisly murder mystery than chilly character study, albeit one dependent on the thinnest of characterizations. The premise of faith-based assisted suicide as a motivating factor for a madman’s killing spree is initially intriguing, but quickly revealed as solemn window dressing. Worse, though, than the gross misappropriation of scripture in the name of savage exhibitionism is the squandering of Sarandon’s talent. With quirky authenticity, the actress reimagines Fargo’s Marge Gunderson as a nihilist, who charges heedlessly after Simon not to make her name as a detective, but because she subconsciously seeks salvation in his mercilessness. And when the inevitable showdown arrives, Sarandon has laid the groundwork to make us believe her protagonist will choose against traditional movie logic. That she doesn’t is because the film isn’t daring enough to go where its lead actress wants to take it.