Directed by: John Michael McDonagh.
Written by: John Michael McDonagh.
Starring: Brendan Gleeson (Father James), Chris O'Dowd (Jack Brennan), Kelly Reilly (Fiona Lavelle), Aidan Gillen (Dr. Frank Harte), Dylan Moran (Michael Fitzgerald), Isaach De Bankolé (Simon), M. Emmet Walsh (The Writer), Marie-Josée Croze (Teresa), Domhnall Gleeson (Freddie Joyce), David Wilmot (Father Leary), Pat Shortt (Brendan Lynch), Gary Lydon (Inspector Stanton), Killian Scott (Milo Herlihy), Orla O'Rourke (Veronica Brennan).
Calvary opens with Father James (Brendan Gleeson), a priest in a small Irish coastal town sitting in a confessional, listening as one of his parishioners tells him about the repeated sexual abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of a priest. The mystery man then tells Father James about his plan to get revenge on the Catholic Church who allowed it to happen – he’s going to kill Father James in exactly one week – not because James is a bad priest, but because he’s a good one. Killing a bad priest would be too easy and wouldn’t mean anything. But killing a good priest – now that would send a message.
That is the setup for the move, but doesn’t really tell you much about how it is all going to play out. This isn’t a whodunit by any means – when James goes to see the Bishop, he says he knows who it was, although he doesn’t divulge that information. Nor does he go to the police – even though since the man wasn’t really confessing, and was talking about future actions, James would be well within his rights to do so and not break the vow of the confessional. James doesn’t even go to the man and try and talk him out of what he’s going to do. Instead, he spends the ensuing week tending to his flock – a flock that pretty much uniformly resents him, and wishes he would go away. They don’t even try to hide their sins – not from James nor from anyone else. In fact, most of them flaunt them to James to see if they can provoke a reaction out of him. From the man who may be beating his wife (Chris O’Dowd), to that wife (Oria O’Rourke) who is openly having an affair with an African immigrant (Issach De Bankole) who openly challenges James. To the bartender, bitter at his lot his life, and the young man in a bowtie that may be a budding psychopath, to the former pupil James visits in jail who definitely was one to the doctor, an open atheist, with a story to explain why. Then there’s the rich man, drinking his life away in his mansion after his wife and children left him – he made his money leading up the global financial crisis, which hit Ireland harder than most, and knows he won’t be punished for it. Even the local cop doesn’t hide his relationship with a cocky male prostitute. James’s daughter (Kelly Reilly) – he entered the priesthood after his wife died years before – is in town for a few days as she recovers from her latest suicide attempt. Almost all of them still attend Mass every Sunday – and then spend the rest of the week doing what they’re told not to. The only two people who seem kind to Father James are, not coincidentally, not Irish – an American writer (M. Emmett Walsh – nice to see him in a movie again, especially since I thought he had died), although he is planning on killing himself, and a French woman (Marie Josee Croze) who is kind to Father James after he gives the Last Rites to her husband.
The movie was written and directed by John Michael McDonagh – whose roots as a playwright show in the movie, which is essentially made up of a series of verbal two-handers between James and the various people in town. Yet, Calvary is not just a photographed play – the landscapes are beautiful, and evoke the Irish films of John Ford – although McDonagh is not romanticizing Ireland like Ford did. It would be easy to say that Calvary is another Christ tale – where Father James stands in for Jesus, willing to sacrifice himself to redeem the sins of his flock. But that wouldn’t quite be accurate either – because James knows full well that his death wouldn’t help redeem anyone. His death would both more meaningless than Jesus’, since it won’t redeem anyone, but the personal sacrifice even greater since he’s going willingly anyway.
Gleeson is terrific in the movie, giving a performance of tremendous empathy that finds notes of humor throughout the darkness of the movie. He also starred in McDonagh’s first film – The Guard – and his brother, Martin McDonagh’s, first film In Bruges, and has proven to be a key collaborator for the brothers. It is a great enough performance to help overcome some of the dialogue in the film – which is a little too on the nose at times – and the fact that I think McDonagh has bitten off a little more than he can chew in one movie – not all of his risks payoff, and he piles it on a little thick at times.
Still Calvary is a fine film – beautiful, well-acted by the entire ensemble, and for the most part well written. Like The Guard, I don’t think it’s a great film. But it’s good enough to make me believe that McDonagh will make a great one eventually.