In a small, dim confessional, Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is calmly told by one of his parishioners that he is to be “sacrificed” the following Sunday, made to die for the sexual abuse that the unknown man suffered at the hands of another priest when he was a boy. The offending priest has since died but the man isn’t interested in making a “bad” priest pay: he wants Father James, a “good” priest, to take a bullet, since the Church will feel his loss harder. “Nothing to say, Father?,” the mysterious man asks, when he’s finished passing his judgment. “I’m sure I’ll think of something in a week,” Father James sardonically replies.
The week leading up to that fateful Sunday forms the crux of Irish auteur John Michael McDonagh’s amazing Calvary (2014), the stunning follow-up to his masterful debut, The Guard (2011). During that time, Father James will reflect on his own life, his failings, his victories and his faith. He’ll spend the time wandering about his tiny, coastal town, making small-talk with the parishioners, these “friends” and neighbors who secretly wish him dead, despite their smiles and condescending good natures: after all, he immediately knows who the wannabe assassin is, even if we don’t…in a town that small, everyone knows everyone else, regardless of the supposed “anonymity” of the confessional window. Despite his knowledge, however, Father James will go through the motions, investigating each “lead” as if it were a Holmes-worthy clue, biding his time until that inevitable, fateful meeting on the beach. Despite his own innocence, Father James is more than willing to become a victim, a sacrificial goat, if that’s what his town needs to heal…to keep on with the drudgery of life under the age-old grip of the Church, Ireland’s bloody past and its uncertain future.
From the jump, McDonagh’s Calvary grabs a hold of you and never lets go: from the great opening quote, by St. Augustine, to the haunting, empty Irish landscape shots that play over the final credits, this is a film that is so exquisitely crafted that it’s almost a Swiss clock. There’s an overarching sadness to the film, a sense of fate and inevitability that cuts across any of the film’s many joyful moments (there are plenty) and underlines all of its most dramatic ones (likewise, plenty). Truth be told, Calvary is one of the saddest films I’ve ever seen, although its sorrow is a mechanical heart, beating deep within the film’s chest and nearly invisible to the naked eye.
There’s a lot going on in Calvary, although McDonagh’s excellent script manages to make everything fit, even if it doesn’t always tie it all together with a big, red bow: the estranged relationship between Father James and his grown daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly)…the way in which the entitlement of the upper-class continues to determine the fate of the poor working stiff, as embodied by Dylan Moran’s boozy lord, Michael Fitzgerald…the way in which the terrible economy and bad housing market have conspired to marginalize the middle class nearly to the point of extinction…the importance of forgiveness in a world that would rather focus on punishment…the way in which the Catholic church’s priest sex scandals continue to influence and change the complex relationship between the clergy and the common people, slowly turning blind devotion into something more closely resembling abject hatred…the necessity of sacrifice as a form of healing…despite this wealth of themes and big ideas, Calvary never feels weighted down or overly preachy (no pun intended).
One of the things that helps Calvary stay afloat when other films might have sunk under this much ambition is the way in which McDonagh subtly uses humor (sometimes bright and laugh-out-loud funny, other times so dark and mean-spirited as to be practically unrecognizable as such) as a means of guiding us through the dark. As previously mentioned, Calvary is an intensely sad, unrelenting film: the characters that haunt its halls are such twisted, wretched, damaged individuals that this streak of gallows’-humor is an absolute necessity. When one character melodramatically describes how his “whole life has been an affectation,” Father James quietly responds that “that’s one of those lines that sounds good but doesn’t make much sense.” We need to know that Father James is keeping his chin up and taking it all in stride because, otherwise, we would never be able to take this journey with him. At one point, Freddie (Domhnall Gleeson), one of James’ former students who’s now locked up for killing and cannibalizing a young girl, plaintively asks the priest: “God has to understand me because he made me, right?” After a beat, Father James replies, “If God can’t understand you, no one can.” The dark streak of humor functions in the same way, reassuring us that things in Father James’ world are never quite as grim as they seem to be, even when our heart tells us that they’re actually much worse.
As with The Guard, McDonagh populates his film with a host of impressively individualistic characters: stellar actors like Dylan Moran (of Black Books fame), Chris O’Dowd, David Wilmot, Aidan Gillen, Gary Lydon and even good, old M. Emmet Walsh (looking positively ancient but sounding just as great as ever) all show up and help weave the intricately intertwined tapestry that forms the fabric of the film. Kelly Reilly does some great work as James’ estranged daughter and I must admit to rather loving Killian Scot’s ridiculously over-the-top performance as Inspector Stanton’s gay, tough-guy lover: it’s a blustery, obnoxious performance with just enough underlying sadness and vulnerability to sell the whole thing, part and parcel.
Towering over everything like some sort of enormous, cassock-clad, bearded Colossus of Rhodes, however, is Brendan Gleeson. Easily one of the best actors working in film today, Gleeson seems to spit out amazing performances like this in his sleep: he’s like the male, Irish Meryl Streep, completely incapable of phoning anything in or giving any less than 1000%. Gleeson isn’t acting: he IS Father James, from head to foot, inhabiting the character so completely that any notion of mimicry goes out the window. There’s not one moment in Gleeson’s performance, one single iota, that ever hits as anything less than completely authentic and genuine. It’s a heartbreaking performance for a number of reasons but the main two are pretty simple: Father James seems like a genuinely nice person and Gleeson brings him to life in a way that makes us know and feel for him. We don’t need to take a side, one way or the other, to feel the tremendous tragedy, the complete unfairness of Father James’ fate: Gleeson makes us feel it because we don’t have a choice.
Craft-wise, Calvary looks and sounds amazing: cinematographer Larry Smith, who also shot Nicholas Winding Refn’s Bronson (2008) and Only God Forgives (2013), turns the emerald greens and azure blues of the Irish countryside into one of the film’s main characters. There’s an impressive sense of space and isolation that perfectly meshes with Father James’ own “man without a country” status in the town and some of the sweeping vistas are so gorgeous that they resemble something out of a travel program. The score and sound design are also expertly realized: one of my very favorite scenes, ever, has to be the one where Father James prepares to leave town, set to the tune of Roger Whittaker’s soaring “New World in the Morning.” The scene is such a perfect synthesis of song and visual, so emotionally wonderful, that it, literally, took my breath away…even thinking back on it now, I find myself getting a little emotional, which is surely the mark of an indelible moment.
All in all, Calvary stands as yet another absolute home-run for McDonagh, a filmmaker who has quickly established himself as one of the most formidable around. Truth be told, I still find it hard to believe that this is only his second film: quality like this should be the result of a lifetime spend honing one’s craft, not the span of four or five short years. From beginning to end, Calvary is a nearly flawless character study and one of the very finest films of this year (or many others, for that matter). For anyone lamenting the lack of quality, “adult” entertainment, look no further than Calvary: it just doesn’t get much better than this, folks.