As Trevor Johnson’s feature article on “Calvary” for the May issue of Sight & Sound so succinctly phrased it, John Michael McDonagh’s second feature is not so much a whodunnit as a whosgonnadoit: Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) is that apparently rare thing in this day and age – an Irish Catholic priest who’s actually a pretty decent guy; a man of God who, rather than coming to his role straight from the seminary and without a clue as to how the majority of people in the community he’s meant to serve actually live their lives, has in fact accumulated a great deal of experience of the real world before accepting his calling: he’s been married at one time, and is the father of a -now-grown-up daughter called Fiona (Kelly Reilly). The death of his wife pushed him into alcoholism and his recovery nudged him towards the church and the priesthood, and the sincerely held convictions which now underpin his faith. However, the situation James finds himself confronting in the quietly electric opening moments of this deftly written and deliciously dark comic drama – crassly put, one could sell it as being part Hitchcock’s “I Confess” and part Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest”, with a flavouring of “Father Ted” -- pitches this gentle, fallible but always well-meaning protagonist headlong into a modern-day parable set in a rural village in County Sligo on the rocky coast of Ireland, which unblinkingly considers the philosophical implications of what it actually means to be a good man in an imperfect world, where bad deeds routinely go unpunished.
The first scene has an anonymous visitor to Father James’ confession box tells the priest how he was, for many years, sexually abused as a child by a trusted churchman (‘I first tasted semen when I was seven years old’ he whispers -- an opening line that even Father James acknowledges to be a ‘startling’ one, in the first of “Calvary’s” many self-reflexive character-led moments). James is told how the priestly perpetrator was never brought to justice and died with his reputation fully intact. His victim, though, went through hell … his life utterly ruined by the experience of betrayal and the mental and physical hurt dealt him in the aftermath … But now he plans to take his retribution in full: revenge for the absence of justice, and the lack of any acknowledgment from the Church of the great wrong done to him and others like him. The confessor tells a dumbfounded Father James that he is going to make the Church pay by murdering him … not because he has been a bad man -- for no-one would be at all surprised by such an act. No -- Father James has been explicitly targeted precisely because he has been a good priest and is a good man. His potential assassin gives James precisely a week ‘to get his affairs in order’ and tells him to present himself for their rendezvous on a stretch of nearby beach the following Sunday: ‘killing a priest on a Sunday -- that would be a good one now.’
“Calvary” sets up what is undoubtedly an intriguing and compelling premise for a thriller by making some attention-grabbing use of McDonagh’s customary knack for smart dialogue, dry one-liners, and the arch wit that anyone who saw his feature debut “The Guard” will no doubt remember with extreme fondness. The tone here is considerably darker than in that wry comic pastiche of Hollywood buddy movies with which this talented writer-director brother of Martin “In Bruges” McDonagh chose to start his own movie career, though. The entire film is built around and centred on Gleeson’s formidable and charismatic presence, but this time out he exudes both gravitas and a tough but quiet dignity in a role written especially for him, and which he helped to develop after a first draft was presented to him during the final editing stages of “The Guard”– a film in which Gleeson was required to provide a much more exaggerated comic performance as a corrupt Irish cop with a soft moral centre. The interest in philosophical ethics and theological issues was evident even in that much lighter-seeming work, though it was slightly more submerged in action set-pieces and comic banter. “Calvary” on the other hand comes with a story inspired by recent news headlines, and functions as a commentary on the state of the Catholic Church in the wake of recent paedophiles-in-the-pulpit scandals, and of Ireland itself after the fall-out from the financial crash of 2008, which hit the country particularly badly.
The character of Father James came about because Gleeson wanted to see a more positive portrayal of the clergy that accorded more with his own experiences of it growing up; but McDonagh’s story is much more hard-edged than that aim makes it sound, tackling heavy duty themes of redemption, forgiveness and faith against a backdrop of increasing mistrust and institutional corruption, not just in relation to the Catholic Church but to western society in general. Here, Gleeson’s beleaguered priest soon finds himself beset from all sides even as he tries to do the right thing, mainly by a guarded and suspicious community for whom he is rapidly becoming a pariah thanks to the collar around his neck. The suspense aspect of the story is reserved exclusively for the viewer’s benefit, since Father James reveals to one of his superiors, about twenty minutes into the picture, that he actually has a pretty good idea who his would-be murderer probably is – though the information isn’t revealed to us until the penultimate scene of the film. Faced with the options, though, of either going to the police with these allegations or taking the next plane out of the village in an attempt to escape any confrontation, he does neither -- and instead, conscious of his moral duty as a man of integrity as well as of God, sets about continuing to administer to his daily duties, before resolving to meet up with the man who intends to do him harm at the appointed hour as arranged, in the hope of talking him out of his lethal plan.
McDonagh structures the movie as a series of encounters between Father James and the various members of the isolated community he serves during the week leading up to his climactic encounter, each one proving adept in posing a specific challenge to his wavering faith in spiritual goodness. In the tradition of Preston Sturges’ approach to screwball comedy, almost all the people in the village are portrayed as eccentric oddballs with a range of peculiar foibles, and are played by some of Ireland’s leading comic actors; but as the film progresses it becomes clear that each of these characters also represent a strand of modern-day life and the specific types of problems it brings for which traditional religion’s often effete-sounding responses might be considered wanting. It’s tempting to indict this ensemble cast of Irish comic turns, who knock out McDonagh’s knowing one-liners and finely turned phrases of withering wit with immaculate timing throughout, as partaking in yet another attempt to portray Ireland in a clichéd light as a place full of hapless ‘bog trotters’ and amusing ‘micks’; but though the cast’s efforts amount to virtually a series of walk-on guest turns with each one featuring in only a handful of scenes, the cumulative effect is of an increasing uneasiness readily evoked by McDonagh’s incredible knack for controlling the tone of the film -- turning it on a dime as laugh-out-loud comic scenes frequently become, out of seemingly nowhere, immensely troubling in a way designed to freeze the very grin on the viewer’s face.
Sexuality is often at the centre of this troubled community’s provocation of James’s honest interest in its spiritual welfare: local butcher Jack Brennan (Chris O’Dowd) is impotent and so ‘shares’ his wife Veronica (Orla O’Rourke) sexually with her immigrant lover Simon (Isaach de Bankolé) and probably numerous others, one of whom is also regularly beating her up; local gay pimp Leo (Owen Sharp) services the corrupt and powerful such as Inspector Stanton (Gary Lydon – who has played the same character now in two McDonagh films and an early short called “Second Death”) but hides behind a bizarre, queered-up James Cagney persona; while socially awkward adolescent Milo Herlihy (Killian Scott) admits to Father James that his lack of success with girls is starting to feed a desire within to hurt them for their constant rejection of his advances. All James’s attempts to help these and other people are met with hostility, mockery and anger: the local pub landlord (Brendan Lynch) berets him for representing such a wealthy institution that manages to do nothing in real terms to alleviate world poverty or war; morally numb financier Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran) is the epitome of someone who owns everything but values nothing, and invites the priest over to his mansion merely in order to amuse himself in mockery by pissing on a priceless Renaissance painting in front of him; while incarcerated cannibal serial killer Freddie Joyce (Domhnall Gleeson) finds sport in making insincere requests for forgiveness after claiming to have ‘found God’ during one of James’s prison visits. By the latter stages of the film even a life-affirming and innocent encounter with a friendly child during a countryside walk results in an irate parent angrily accusing Father James of attempting to molest her! To make matters worse, someone, presumably the man responsible for making the threat against Father James’s life, is also waging a vicious and relentless campaign that leads to a series of disturbing and violent hate crimes being committed, apparently as a means of getting at the increasingly vexed priest. Aidan Gillen also appears as a dry humoured atheist pathologist (ironically named Dr Frank Harte) who, while bemoaning his clichéd role in the drama as the standard sceptical rationalist, nevertheless cuts right to the quick of James’s wavering faith with a chilling medical anecdote about an anaesthetised three-year-old, that’s knowingly designed to tip him over the edge during a moment of extreme spiritual crisis, sending him back to the bottle in the process.
Father James does have some support: an American writer with a terminal disease played by M. Emmet Walsh (“Blood Simple”) offers solace and banter but expects Father James to help him end his suffering when the time comes; a widowed Frenchwoman (Marie-Josée Croze) comforts him with her absolute faith in God's plan; and cherub-faced altar boy Michael O’Sullivan (another veteran of “The Guard” -- child actor Michael Og Lane) is another friendly, light-hearted presence throughout; Kelly Reilly provides the anchor point in Father James’s story as his formerly estranged daughter Fiona, returning to his life after a failed suicide attempt in the wake of the death of her mother, to patch up misunderstandings in their relationship caused by feelings of betrayal after her father to her mind ‘abandoned’ her for God. The film amounts to an dramatized illustration of the seven stages of grief, or a metaphor for the Stations of the Cross (as indicated of course by its title) with some wonderfully numinous photography from Larry Smith that captures the sea-sprayed mountainous coastal districts of Ireland which form an immensely evocative backdrop for this affecting narrative -- a modern-day mini-masterpiece which has become one of the stand-out movies of 2014. The DVD and Blu-ray release comes with some rather perfunctory interview snippets as extras, featuring most of the cast but each one lasting no longer than three minutes. Not much is revealed in them, although John Michael McDonagh’s insistence on the cast following his script to the letter, without changing one single beat of the dialogue, becomes a running theme. This is a wonderfully dark, thought-provoking piece of work that is destined to be considered one of the great films of the current decade.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!