What does a world-weary man of faith do when those around him seek to drag him down to the moral cesspool?
The arduous journey taken by the imperiled Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is the focal point of John Michael McDonagh’s pitch perfect follow-up to his promising debut The Guard (2011).
McDonagh shares an envious talent for dialogue with his brother, the playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) and on this occasion finds the visual panache that was sometimes lacking in his previous work.
There’s a striking power to the pit of anger and self-loathing that has engulfed the residents of this Irish coastal village, none more so than in the masterful opening scene; an unbroken four-minute take that rests on Gleeson’s wonderfully nuanced reactions to a faceless parishioner’s declaration during confession that he is going to kill him as retribution against the Catholic church for allowing the abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of a fellow priest to go unpunished.
James is told to put his affairs in order and spends what we believe are his last days meeting with his disaffected flock, including a butcher (played by Chris O’Dowd), a doctor (Aidan Gillen) and a successful businessman (Dylan Moran), and building bridges with his depressed daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly), who has come to visit following a failed suicide attempt.
The whodunnit aspect of the story is a smoke screen for what the film is really about; specifically the loss of faith in both institutions and ourselves and the rage that stems from this towards those in power. Calvary is the Biblical location where Jesus was crucified and the comparison becomes clear as McDonagh’s film plays out.
High Noon is a clear influence (a newspaper he’s reading early in the film refers to Ireland’s “wild wild west”) while, much like Tommy Lee Jones’ sheriff in No Country For Old Men, James is bewildered by the peccancy that seeps out of the village.
Each of the villagers he visits is a ‘sinner’ in some form; whether it be of a sexual or moralistic nature (Moran’s repugnant capitalist worships only materialism and believes there’s “no such thing as too much; there’s only not enough”); even his daughter is a sinner in the eyes of the church for having tried to take her own life.
Tellingly though, in spite of their ridicule and goading, most of the locals feel a compulsion to talk to James; as such the character is in essence a vessel to offload their self-loathing.
Calvary‘s heightened reality (the moon sits enormously in the sky, for example) and broadly brushed supporting characters can take you out of the film, but its pitch black humour (delivered more often than not by a sardonic James) and wry observations on the dirty affair between the church, its public image and money are on the nose.
The international cast (which includes Isaach de Bankolé and an ancient looking M. Emmet Walsh) are roundly excellent, but all pale in comparison against Gleeson’s supreme performance. Gleeson seems to get better with age and his effortlessly indomitable delivery belies the complexity of a role that one can only imagine this actor inhabiting.
This marks the middle chapter in a planned trilogy between director and actor. On the strength of Calvary, we should be spoiled indeed.
Wow, brilliant review Mark. And, if I’m not mistaken, you’ve taken to this one a lot more than I have. I felt shut-out and cold by the atrocious acts and mannerisms of these locals. Father James should have jumped ship years ago! What is he still doing in such a sad-sack town??? 🙂
Cheers! Well, the church sticks it out in places with even less hope than this particular Irish village! The black humour – and the performances – push it over the edge in my book.
It’s an interesting movie in how it juggles both comedy, drama and faith. Sometimes, it doesn’t work, but overall, it kept me watching. Good review Mark.
It’s a very fine balance that the film tries to find and I’m impressed with how it managed to do all that without going off the rails. Cheers Dan.
Wonderful review for a brilliant and haunting film, mate.
Thank you as always. It’s visuals really stayed with me.
Gleeson is just brilliant, always!
He can’t put a step wrong at the monent can he?
Brilliant review man. I enjoyed reading your analysis of the film.
You did? Thank you! Oh man, that’s great to hear 🙂
Sounds good Mark! I’m a big fan of Gleeson and despite its dark/violent moments, I’d still be up for renting this one.
Sorry for not replying sooner Ruth! Sheesh! The violence is pretty tame in my view. Do it!
Excellent write-up Mark, you really hit the nail on its head here. I thought this was great, and Gleeson even better.
Thank you Adam. I’m very pleased you got as much out of this as I did.
Top stuff mate. Glad you liked this as much as I did. Gleeson was brilliant and there’s a huge amount going on here if you scratch the surface. I reckon a second viewing would work well with this one.
I think you’re right. Gleeson’s performance is so layered; there’s an awful lot going on underneath that fine beard.
I thought I had visited this post – sorry!
Good stuff. Any boobs?
😦 😦 😦
I know, I know….
Excellent work sir! Such a great little film. I notice we actually finish on a similar note of being in for another treat if Calvary is anything to go by. I swear I never stole this. 😉 Its just two great minds thinking very much alike!
Yeah, yeah mate, I believe you! But seriously, we are most definitely on the same page here. Mulling over where this would end up on a year end list.
As it stands, it too for me but ive yet see many more that i know ill just love. I was a big fan of Nymphomaniac too, though, and ive only recently realised that that was this year too. I’m between those two.
Not caught Nymphomaniac yet. It’s on the list!
Not for everyone but I found it to be a work of art. Pure genius!