Dir: John Michael McDonagh
It sounds like a bad joke that becomes deadly serious. A priest walks into a confessional. The parishioner, shrouded by a veiled divider, states that in one week’s time he’ll kill the priest. This priest hasn’t transgressed, he is a good man. This is precisely why the senseless act of violence will be even more shocking. The parishioner is seeking to expose the Catholic church’s hypocrisy and make an innocent suffer for his loss of innocence. An eye for an eye, as it were. And so begins the morality play that is Calvary, writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s latest.
That interplay between comedy and grave subject matter is the fine line that Calvary walks. Brendan Gleeson stars as Father James, a small-town Irish priest with one week to put his house in order before an unknown assailant possibly makes good on his threat and guns him down. The film plays a bit like a whodunnit as title cards tick down the seven days, but is less about the procedural element and more about James’ interactions with his parish and townspeople. McDonagh’s playwright beginnings shine through in the talky script, ably delivered by a diverse cast.
In episodic fashion (there could even be an intermission halfway through) James meets with eclectic townsfolk like free-thinking Veronica (Orla O’Rourke), a local housewife sporting a black eye. It was either her outwardly kind husband Jack (Chris O’Dowd) or her mysterious lover Simon (Isaach De Bankolé) that gave it to her. The upstanding yet exasperated James is seeking only to provide comfort and possibly guidance, but mostly to listen. He may be past the point of righting wrongs. Further complicating matters is James’ visiting daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly). Fresh from a suicide attempt and seeking solace in the countryside, Fiona is just as confused and wayward as everyone else. She may need her father, Father James, more than anyone else.
The banter is fast and verbose, laced with morbid humour and Irish wit. Characters contemplate mortality and talk around their problems, and it’s all rather engaging. The always great Dylan Moran appears as a drunk financier who gained great wealth at the cost of his family. Ireland’s bottomed out economy becomes a focal point as those who have wealth don’t value it and those who could use it are without. M. Emmet Walsh (he’s still alive!) is the elderly and sage Writer, while Marie-Josée Croze plays a visiting French woman whose life is struck by tragedy. Even Domnhall Gleeson (Brendan’s son) appears in Calvary, as James’ former student who’s now imprisoned for multiple homicides. Their scene together is a real staring into the void moment, as James confronts true darkness and wonders who’s gazing back.
Perhaps the most affecting scene is when atheist Dr. Frank Harte (Aiden Gillen) confronts Father James in a bar and relates to him a story about a botched procedure that left a young child without sight or hearing, screaming in the dark. It’s a parable, the point of which is not lost on the priest. This sets the recovering alcoholic James down a dark path, one which he may not recover from.
Sporting a traditional cassock (like Neo in The Matrix Reloaded!) and a grandfatherly charm that exudes warmth but reveals depths of sadness, Gleeson is great as Father James. You can’t imagine anyone else in the role, which makes sense, as it was written with Gleeson in mind. McDonagh’s previous film The Guard centred around Gleeson as well (opposite a well cast Don Cheadle), and McDonagh’s brother Martin also found great results with Gleeson in their raucous collaboration In Bruges. Watch those two movies along with Seven Psychopaths and Calvary and you’ll have seen all of the McDonagh Brothers’ films to date. It’d surely be a good craic and a worthwhile endeavour.
Throughout Calvary pastoral interludes highlight Ireland’s natural beauty and section up the more verbal sequences nicely. While at times it feels like the movie could just as easily have been a play, some striking imagery helps to allay that sense. The pace flags at time and sometimes loses urgency, but McDonagh (and by extension his characters) seems more interested in simply shooting the shit than conveying a strong sense of agency. This approach seems fitting for an Irish film so enamoured with conversation and their meanings (many of which occur in barrooms). Philosophical and meandering, Calvary has a lot on its mind and there’s plenty to parse out once it comes to its shocking conclusion. This theological tale of possible redemption is worth spending time with for the performances and story, and for a uniquely savage view that ultimately affords its subjects a level of grace. Pairs well with Guinness.