On the Clark St. bus in Chicago I overheard a (I assume, quite religious) woman telling her friend, “You should have to undergo psychological evaluation if you want to see something like that!” She was talking about “Calvary,” John Michael McDonagh’s black comedy that explores how much wickedness a good priest can endure. She was also probably misinterpreting McDonagh’s film, as this is a story dissecting morality, not religion.
As the patriarchal presence and spiritual cypher to a small, coastal town in Ireland, Father James (Brendan Gleeson) selflessly dedicates his life to the problems of others. He’s the last guy someone should want to kill, but, in a confessional, an unseen man threatens to do just that.
The man confesses he was a victim of clergy abuse as a child, and has decided to take vengeance on Father James despite his innocence. He’s given a week’s time. Being that he’s an integral part of such a close-knit town, James seems to know who the man is, but he doesn’t share this information with anyone else (or us).
What’s so interesting about “Calvary” is that its trailer doesn’t do much to promote its most unique feature – the structure. The murder mystery established at the opening and resolved at the close takes up around ten minutes at either end. The bulk of the film, then, is given to a series of delightfully pitch black vignettes in which Father James meets with the various townspeople who seem to have become used to sharing their most personal pitfalls and destructive thoughts with him.
Each of these one-off scenes brings in a new character. A wealthy financier, abandoned by his wife and children, observes a rare painting hanging on his wall: “Everything has to mean something, otherwise what’s the point? Anyways, I don’t have to know what it means, I own it, that’s all that matters.” A handsome and helplessly shy twenty-something is stuck between committing suicide and joining the Army (a job he feels may benefit from his violent urges).
The question of who is planning on murdering Father James weighs over all of these scenes, even if that particular plotline isn’t directly advanced until the very end. These fairly simple black comedy scenes are elevated in importance with the additional stakes the murder-mystery gives the film. McDonagh’s blend of gallows humor and genuine drama works in direct homage to his brother Martin’s best film, “In Bruges.”
“Calvary” opens with a two-minute reaction shot that confirms from the very start: this is Brendan Gleeson’s film. A few leading and supporting roles deep into the year already, Gleeson is quickly becoming a sought-after presence in movies that require dense, high-intensity characters. “Calvary” is, by design, a film featuring a procession of single-beat, on-the-nose characters. The supporting roles all add to a cumulative sense that this particular town must be a halfway point between Earth and hell. At the center of those inventive but simple characters is Father James, who is left with all of the complexity to himself. McDonagh pushes it a little far with the saintliness of James, taking an entire act to introduce hints of his past that suggest he’s still human despite his overwhelming goodness.
From there, Gleeson performs the hell out of the character – a man who’s finding his moral code isn’t just outdated, it’s all but extinct. Gleeson does little full-body acting, but performs at an impressive level with his eyes alone.
If there’s a bone to pick with “Calvary,” it’s probably got to do with the presentation. The tone of McDonagh’s screenplay seems to be a no-brainer for a high-style visual approach by way of an Irvine Welsh adaptation, but cinematographer Larry Smith’s work here is fairly traditional in technique. Like Smith’s photography in 2013’s “Only God Forgives,” he excels at capturing scenes lit by mixed sources and various color temperatures. The stained glass of the windows of Father James’ church are played to great effect. And as for the exteriors, well, you could likely point a camera in any which way on the shores of Ireland and end up with a stunning image, but the helicopter work here is particularly beautiful. Again, though, save for a few jump cuts to raw, freshly butchered meat, the largely traditional dramatic approach to the presentation may prohibit some viewers from picking up on how much fun the filmmakers are having with this story.
“Calvary” is a few adjustment clicks away from being award season ready, but those adjustments aren’t ones that would improve the film. It’s not politically correct, or Christian-lady-on-the-bus-approved, but “Calvary” is nonetheless a wonderfully enjoyable black comedy that’s well executed on nearly every level. And although it has more to do with morality than religion, don’t forget the historical weight of its title (you didn’t think it was called “Cavalry,” did you?)Continue Reading Issue #15
August 1, 2014 (US limited)
1 hr. 40 min.
John Michael McDonagh
Brendan Gleeson, Chris O'Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, Domhnall Gleeson, David Wilmot