Published on September 10th, 2014 | by Dan Nicholls0
Brendan Gleeson and John Michael McDonagh reteam in a hearty film about one of the last good priests in a world gone a bit mad.
On a Sunday like any other, following a church service like any other, a priest walks into a confessional booth and is told he will be killed in seven days. It’s not because the priest has done anything wrong — it’s because he’s one of the few who hasn’t done anything wrong. It’s his innocence that will make the crime noticed, the man on the other side of the booth reasons, because the glut of news about pedophiliac priests has become so overwhelming it has begun to lose its impact on the world. It’s a confounding threat with a seemingly misguided target, but the words of warning are real. Sort of sets up a guy for a shitty Monday, no?
John Michael McDonagh, the brother of Oscar-winner Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths), marks his second feature as a writer/director with Calvary; the Irish filmmaker previous wrote and directed the 2011 hit The Guard, which also starred the invaluable Brendan Gleeson. Gleeson and McDonagh seem made for each other: The former’s ability to effortlessly command a screen is a nice match for the latter’s verbose (though sometimes a bit too showy) dialogue. Having been a big fan of The Guard upon its release, I was anticipating a second helping of more of the same with Calvary. The two films, as it turns out, could not be more different from each other.
While The Guard was a black comedy with a flourish or two for crime thriller tropes, Calvary is a bleak drama from the first frame. The film’s opening lines — which won’t be reprinted here — could produce choked laughs of the “what the hell did he just say” variety; the bluntness of the words catches Gleeson’s Father James unprepared, and firmly shakes the audience to attention. From that point onward, it’s clear that Calvary isn’t, and never could be, a typical tale of faith and redemption. In Calvary’s world, Father James isn’t a priest shepherding his followers towards a path of Christian living – he’s standing on the banks of the River Styx and offering one last hand towards the sinners rapidly crumbling into the waters.
As the clock ticks down, Father James still tries to offer some form of guidance to the members of a small town where everybody knows everybody else’s name, and no one’s private business is really all that private. The viewpoints offered by Father James’ flock are at times vile — nearly gleeful in their nasty and odious nature — and give the weatherworn parishioner more knocks back on his heels than signs of encouragement. Through the course of the week that leads up to Father James’ confrontation with his aggressor, the priest visits with a cocaine-snorting doctor (Aidan Gillen, from Game of Thrones and The Wire), an ageing writer on the lookout for a firearm (M. Emmet Walsh), and a butcher (Chris O’Dowd, the funnyman from Bridesmaids and The IT Crowd) with an air of negligence about his wife’s extra-marital activities. James’ daughter (Kelly Reilly, recently seen alongside Denzel Washington in Flight) also drops by following her failed suicide attempt. A withering congregation in a small town of sinners hits James with pangs of disappointment and failure, but the good priest keeps marching on with his head held high and only the occasional outburst of frustration and despondency towards his unfaithful flock. James is a man stuck between a rock and a hard place, with his seemingly single option being to turn his back on his town and his church, and run away before any harm can come to him. But James, a staunch man of the cloth, stares down the sin and the unsavory lifestyles of the corrupted town in the eye.
It’s no spoiler to say that Calvary ends with few easy answers. The questions left remaining only lead to bigger, more existential, questions that may present themselves on screen quietly but which have simmered in my mind steadily since first seeing the film. There are moments of levity (or as light as they can get in a town where gallows humor flows steadily) but the laughs are neither hearty nor consistent. Calvary instead turns some of its anger inward and away from the snarky mentality of The Guard. It’s a shockingly sincere and sober portrait of a man trying to do some good in a world that’s lost respect for men of his type and order. It’s never lost on Father James that he’s living his life fighting an uphill battle — it doesn’t matter. He marches forward all the same.
The end credits appear almost too abruptly, leaving plenty of material worth mining and questions worth being explored. But it ends without offering answers that either wouldn’t satisfy or would ring false in their attempt to wrap everything up with a nice little bow. I left the theater in silence after the credits finished rolling and my brain was up in arms juggling the many thematic quandaries and ambiguous motivations left unresolved. It’s an unforgettable character study and examination of modern day morality — it’s also one of this year’s very best films.