Calvary (2014) / Drama-Comedy
MPAA Rated: R for violent content, sexual references, and language
Running Time: 100 min.
Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly, Chris O'Dowd, Aiden Gillen, Dylan Moran, Isaach de Bankole, M. Emmet Walsh, Marie-Josee Croze, Domhnall Gleeson, David Wilmot
Director: John Michael McDonagh
Screenplay: John Michael McDonagh
Review published June 26, 2014
John Michael McDonagh (The Guard) scripts and directs this jet black comedy, reuniting with Brendan Gleeson (Edge of Tomorrow, Safe House), whom he worked with in 2011's The Guard, McDonagh's first feature project. Gleeson plays Father James Lavelle, an Irish priest who is threatened in the confessional by one of his flock who claims that he is going to kill him to make a statement regarding his childhood sexual trauma incurred at the hands of another priest. The mysterious man leaves Father James one week to get his affairs in order before he kills him -- on a Sunday! That will send a message for sure, he thinks.
What follows next is Father James going through his familiar motions, while also trying to figure out why the man he suspects he listened to in the confessional would think to do what he claims he will do, turning the film into a mystery of sorts as the priest talks to a variety of people in the small township in order to put all of the pieces together. Over the course of the next few days, the priest makes quite a few discoveries about the bitter underpinnings of the community he serves, and their lack of adherence to the things he has been preaching, apparently to deaf ears.
Calvary features a solid collection of character actors, who all support an impeccably delivered performance by Brendan Gleeson, one of the best of his esteemed career. It's not flashy, but it is thoroughly well-rounded, and the most powerful moments are the ones in which we can just read the anguish and emotion in his face, as well as his utter disappointment at the lack of integrity in nearly everyone around him.
The blackness of the comedy slowly but surely morphs into a poignant drama, as each day brings the Father closer to the moment in which is is supposed to meet his demise. There's very little that's funny to be found in the film's darker second half, as Lavelle finds that the threats are certainly not idle, as parts of his life that he holds dear begin to disintegrate. Themes run around about how members of the Church who are doing good works are undermined by the few who have committed unspeakable acts, and how the reputation has eroded to the point where even an innocent conversation with a child has her a parent screaming at her to get away from him. It's a world in which religion seems to be losing its foothold in the community, who have begun to either treat the religious figures in their midst with indifference at best, and hostility at worst.
Though the film is a bit on the vulgar and sometimes violent side, McDonagh excels at pulling out some tender and touching moments amid the rough and tough edges that make up the backbone of the main story. One such thread involves the Father connecting with his suicidal daughter visiting from Dublin, Fiona (Reilly, Heaven is for Real), whom he shows much love and compassion for, despite her attempts to commit sins that may result in her unfortunate demise. He also takes time out to console a stranger who has lost her husband, something that often shakes even devout members of the church out of their faith, but his words carry weight in a moment of need.
McDonagh's film features some truly breathtaking scenery, sumptuously photographed by Larry Smith (Austenland), who draws out every bit of the beauty of rural, seaside Ireland in all of its magnificent glory. The framing of the interiors of the Church, pub, and other darker places brings forth a contemplative mood befitting a tale of reflection on the struggles of life and the growing absence of morals and character in a community that no longer feels attached any more. It's an odd place in which one would think would be full of vice and anger, in stark contrast to such amazing beauty and life, with each rollicking wave unable to wash away the pain and inner turmoil that exists for those who feel they haven't much to live or to strive for.
If there's a main theme that runs throughout Calvary it's that the circle of sin is often unbroken, as one sin causes innocents to commit others, and only in the virtue of forgiveness can the circle finally be broken. As the end of the journey draws near, and as we wonder whether it will be the end of Father James as well, McDonagh's style becomes increasingly more existential, to the point where some interesting Western-genre elements even creep in; its High Noon influence can't be denied. While some will find certain elements of the story to go places they'd rather not have seen it go, Calvary emerges as a robust and daring work that intrigues, infuriates, and inspires in almost equal measure. Plus, Gleeson is commanding to watch no matter what situation he walks into, and even if its just to watch an amazing actor at the peak of his powers, Calvary would be worthy of a recommendation.
©2014 Vince Leo