Calvary (2014): Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh. Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aiden Gillen, Dylan Moran, Isaach de Bankole, M. Emmett Walsh, Marie-Josee Croze. Running Time: 101 minutes.
Taken collectively, many of the plays and films of Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) and his brother John Michael, whose new film Calvary is a thematic sequel to his first full-length feature The Guard, present a rather bleak image of their home county of Galway in Ireland; a place of tiny towns occupied by every stock type of human cruelty, cynicism, amorality, and apathy you care to name, set amongst the most stunning vistas of green hills and gently curving beaches imaginable. Several recurring themes from his brother’s plays are either front and center in this film, or are tucked away in the corners for those who know what to look for, including, among others, a hopelessly genuine priest, furiously repressed young men stifled by their country surroundings, pets as curious symbols of the paradoxes of human affections and aggressions, the institution of the Church as a catch-all metaphor for impotent failure, and a pervading sense that the veneer of Irish pleasantness draped across every scene is nothing but a wafer-thin façade, concealing a steely brutality of character just waiting for the right moment to reveal itself.
The center of this story is Brendan Gleeson’s Father James, a character not unlike the hapless Father Welsh in Martin McDonagh’s play The Lonesome West in that, for all his efforts, he seems unable to truly reach anyone in his willfully sinful little flock. Included in this film’s gathering of social cast-offs are an ironically bitter Buddhist barkeeper, a butcher with a dismally dark sense of humor (Chris O’Dowd in an intriguingly serious turn), a young woman set in her carnal ways and her African boyfriend, a sexually desperate young man, a seemingly ancient American author, a defiantly unethical former banker, and an acerbically atheistic doctor (played by Aiden Gillen, instantly recognizable to any devoted GoT fan as Littlefinger).
That things have been spiritually trying for some time is clear. However, things get vastly more complicated at the start of the film, when an unseen parishioner steps into the confessional only to inform Father James that he intends to kill him in a week’s time, as vengeance for the horrid abuse he suffered at from priests as a child. Not that Father James himself is guilty of anything. In fact, the unseen would-be murderer explains, that’s exactly the point; what surprise would there be killing a bad priest, when killing a good would send a much more jolting shock through society’s collective spine? Understandably, this sets off an excruciating spiritual and emotional crisis for Father James, one that consumes the days he is given to organize his affairs. Should he involve the police, or even the Church itself? Should he actually wait out the week and go to the beach at the appointed time, or flee while he has the chance? And if he does go, should he arm himself and fight back, or offer himself up to the vagaries of fate?
This film is strangely beautiful in how tragic it is, a sense of tragedy that is inevitable given the subject matter. One scene in particular reminds the viewer that travesties of humanity like the child abuse scandals in the Church carry a terrible weight that reaches far beyond those immediately affected. About halfway through the movie, while Father James is wandering along a country road, he begins to idly chat with a girl picking flowers along the same path. After a few minutes, their conversation is abruptly interrupted by the girl’s father, who whisks her away while shooting the well-meaning Father a look filled with pure venom. Only after they leave does the full realization of what just happened seem to hit him, and the look that crosses his face is heart-rending. Ultimately, though, the movie’s final thesis statement, a searing condemnation of both the Church and ourselves as an audience, of our tendency to ignore hard truths and to forget those we do acknowledge as quickly as possible, is contained in a few short lines within the film’s last scene. It reminded me strongly of the final shot in The Wolf of Wall Street, a final flourish meant as a sucker punch for anyone in the audience who mistakenly believes they are about to be let off easy.
The cast in this film is magnificent from top to bottom. Brendan Gleeson is one of the best screen presences in the business today, able to bear so much on those broad shoulders of his. Kelly Reilly adds quiet grace as well as his daughter Fiona (he only joined the priesthood after his wife died), a brief visit of sanity from the outside. And that fact alone- that Fiona seems to be the only person on-screen aside from Father James with her head screwed on straight- is an ironic twist in itself, since she herself is still recovering from a suicide attempt following yet another failed relationship. In fact, all of the characters, including Father James, are emotionally and/or spiritually damaged in one way or another, be they male or female, young or old, priest or layman. The film is not only an indictment of a particularly dark moment in Church history (which, I need hardly remind most people, is littered with dark moments), it is also a broad and humbling meditation on our inherently broken nature as humans. In a phone call with his daughter after she leaves, Father James remarks that there’s probably been all too much talk about sins over the years, and not enough about virtues. “What virtue is your favorite?” Fiona asks. “I think forgiveness has been given a short stick,” he replies.
I don’t know if I can lay the same amount of praise on the screenplay as I do on the cast. John Michael has not given us something as tightly cohesive as his brother’s masterpiece In Bruges. And the final reveal of who the intended killer is, meant as a plot twist of sorts, will probably pose no difficulties or shock for some. Not that the film really tries to surprise us anyway- the shot telling us who it was in the confessional at the beginning is handled quickly, and without fanfare. No, this movie has other things on its mind, things far more important than telling a simple story about a hellish-yet-pristine town in the Irish countryside. It tries to pry open the box of collective silence, to let the cries of anguish and pain, hidden for decades (and perhaps for centuries), ring out into the open air. They are cries that demand to be heard, and that should never be silenced.