In the midst of his confession, a man promises to kill Father James (Brendan Gleeson) in one week’s time. Not because he’s a bad priest, but because he’s an innocent priest. His reasoning comes as the result of being raped for several years by a priest when he was a young boy and while the man responsible for such deplorable acts has now died, this confessor believes to kill the criminal would have been worthless anyway, but to kill an innocent priest? Well, that would turn some heads.
These are the opening moments of John Michael McDonagh‘s sophomore effort Calvary, a movie that left me emotionally rattled in a way I can’t say I’ve experienced in some time. Set in a small Irish village, McDonagh makes good use of a small number of locals, touching on a wealth of societal touchstones including religion, drug abuse, banking scandals, adultery, domestic abuse and so on and so forth. Amid all of this is Father James, stoic while dealing with his own issues.
James has alcoholism in his past, he became a priest following his wife’s death, his daughter (Kelly Reilly) is having her own share of issues (most recently an attempted suicide) and his fellow clergyman Father Timothy Leary (David Wilmot) is about as out-of-touch as one can get. Yet, he keeps his cool in the face of all this, at least for the most part as he isn’t one to suffer fools, which becomes quite obvious while visiting the village’s resident one-percenter (Dylan Moran). Every person Father James runs into tests him in some way, all while the darkness looms and the days tick by.
As much as you could look at this film as a mystery, wondering who exactly it is that threatened Father James and whether or not they will go through with said threat, I found the claustrophobic and ever-increasing darkness of the story to be more than enough to keep my attention. Father James stands as one of the last pillars of innocence in a world where people are lost, have given up and in some cases see death as the only way out. As a priest, Father James accepts these circumstances and attempts to comfort and tend to his flock, but how long can you be surrounded by evil until all innocence is lost?
McDonagh reteams with Brendan Gleeson who starred in his highly comical directorial debut The Guard, and again Gleeson proves why he’s one of our top talents and, for material such as this, a no-brainer choice, and he’s surrounded by an equally talented supporting cast.
Chris O’Dowd plays a man whose wife (Orla O’Rourke) is blatantly unfaithful with a local mechanic (Isaach de Bankole); M. Emmet Walsh plays an American author prepared to confront his own death; and Aidan Gillen (Littlefinger on “Game of Thrones”) plays an atheist doctor and cocaine addict. In a nearly unrecognizable role, Gleeson’s son, Domhnall Gleeson, plays a serial killer who cannibalized his victims; Pat Shortt plays a disgruntled barman whose establishment will soon be taken from him by the banks; and Owen Sharpe plays a male prostitute with a Bronx accent, whose demons Father James knows lurk near the surface but he never fully coerces them out.
Each and every one of these characters come about as if Father James is circling each layer of Hell until he finally finds himself in the thick of it. Calvary almost plays like a film wondering if good really can prevail over evil or if, perhaps, evil has already won.
I could understand if someone were to take issue with the film, believing it doesn’t necessarily represent the whole of society or suggesting the characters are merely stand-ins for themes McDonagh wishes to explore (because that’s really all they are), but I respected it for something beyond the puppet-like simplicity of its characters. In an era where so many films are set within a post apocalyptic world, Calvary almost feels like a story on the cusp of the apocalypse itself with fire and brimstone bubbling around the edges.
If Calvary had begun with text telling us it was set in 2024 I would have fully bought in. There is a level of foresight to McDonagh’s script, which elegantly touches upon the idea of sin and humanity’s increasing lack of compassion and willingness to forgive. Just take a trip around the Internet and you’ll find any measure of hatred being spewed or turn on the television to any one of the hundreds of reality shows, shows not built on the idea you’ll feel good about the people you’re watching, but built on the idea you’ll most likely hate or resent them all.
Extending beyond the script and performances, Larry Smith (Only God Forgives, Eyes Wide Shut) captures Ireland from every gloomy angle and Patrick Cassidy‘s score elevates that gloom to an even greater degree. You can almost feel the heat from a burning building and as the sea wind whips the tall grass, Cassidy lays the music on thick and foreboding.
Some are finding dark humor in Calvary. I didn’t laugh once. It’s an end of days, loss of faith, innocence, hope etc. kind of movie. It’s a movie I find hard to say I liked, rather opting for words such as respect and admire. My drive home was somber and reflective and it wasn’t until halfway home I realized how much the film had affected my mood. I was in a daze as if the wool had been pulled from over my eyes and still darkness is all I could see.