Director: John Michael McDonagh
Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly, Dylan Moran, Aidan Gillian, David Wilmot, Chris O’Dowd, Orla O’Rourke, Isaach De Bankole, Killian Scott, Domhnall Gleeson
Plot: Father Lavelle (Gleeson) is told he is going to be murdered in seven days’ time by an anonymous local, who was raped by catholic priests as a child.
Calvary is the second film by John Michael McDonagh and this one is raising just as much praise as his first effort with ‘The Guard’. Calvary acts as both a crime thriller to please the mystery-loving crowd and a look at the life of a modern Catholic priest. The set-up is quickly offered up with the very first frame opening with one of the most controversial lines in the movie and proceeding to explain that in seven days Father James Lavelle will be shot dead for crimes committed by a long-dead priest. This helps let the audience know where we all stand, because Calvary is the kind of film that likes its slow, thoughtful scenes. With the drive to stick through it ignited, we are happy to let McDonagh take all the time he needs to tell his story.
In fact, it becomes very clear that the murder mystery is little more than the canvas to paint his picture on. He isn’t too bothered with the hidden bad guy in his supporting cast; he is far more interested in the mortality of the lead character. There is an idea that if McDonagh wrote cancer as the thing that would eventually kill Lavelle, Calvary wouldn’t be too different a story. We would still have the burning questions prompted by the writers and the interesting take on Catholic priests. It is refreshing to have the lead Catholic of the story an inherently good person, as McDonagh understands that this is a much more interesting, and unique, road to go down when discussing Catholics. Bad press has made the profession a very untrustworthy one, as we can see from the locals taking cheap shots at him in the pub or parents scared to leave their children alone with him. Several points in the movie question the importance or impact the Church has on the world. A neat montage ties up the film, suggesting that religion has impacted very little on any of the supporting cast’s character arcs. Lavelle spends the entire film preaching forgiveness, yet the killer still wants to shoot him for someone else’s crimes. The people who come to his Church for counsel are often toying with the idea of religion, rather than truly embracing the concept of confessing their sins. McDonagh tells his story well and while Calvary often loses audience members by trying a little too hard, it is always fascinating to see Father Lavelle work his way through the isolated Irish town.
Gleeson is phenomenal no matter what road McDonagh chooses to go down. It is interesting watching how he reacts to certain accusations or characters. It is hard to believe a man could be this patient with some locals that really are nasty pieces of work. McDonagh rarely lets Gleeson overact, asking him to express the deep thoughts and emotions his character experiences with presence and silence. When Lavelle finally does begin to break under his imminent execution and the futile nature of his preaching, you can hardly blame the man. He spends the entire movie biting his tongue and he doesn’t really break through to too many people. At times, he feels more like an over-worked psychiatrist than a priest, although we can see that McDonagh wants to point out the lack of difference between the two professions. It really is Gleeson’s show with the other actors being reduced to a few scenes apiece, keeping them mysterious and potential killers. The other performance that deserves praising is Kelly Reilly, as Lavelle’s troubled daughter. She brings a sharp-edged tongue where Gleeson has silence, earning some of the best duologues. Her sub-plot does feel a little isolated from the rest of the story, but the themes still get across to the audience.
Truth be told, most of the actors, if not all, are on fine form. They blend humour and drama well, especially Aidan Gillian, who has fun with his usual ‘dickhead’ stock character. My only problem is that we only understand a few of them. The mystery element of the film wants to keep us guessing until the very end, but it means that when the film closes, we haven’t connected with anyone who isn’t Gleeson, Reilly or the eventual killer (even there, more characterisation would have been appreciated). Perhaps McDonagh doesn’t want us to understand these people, leaving us as lost in a sea of corruption as Lavelle feels. He tries to help people, but they are so lost in their sins or unwilling to open up that he never manages to get under their hardened shells. However, this purposeful emptiness does mean that all of these nasty traits end up feeling like cheap ploys to make everyone a red herring. Why is this character toying with Lavelle’s beliefs? Why did he come out with that sickening monologue? We never get any closure, which, again, is McDonagh’s intent, but it leaves us with several halves of character arcs. Only Gleeson gets a complete character to get to grips with. As it stands, Calvary feels like a glorified murder mystery on daytime TV, helped by great performances from the crop of Ireland’s acting community, but still rousing up the same kind of thrill.
Final Verdict: Calvary has some great themes and gets the ball rolling with a lot of interesting talking points, but these bigger meanings get in the way of the actual movie. Good, but not as great as the critics have made it out to be.