Calvary is to John Michael McDonagh’s debut feature The Guard what Pulp Fiction was to Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. It’s an entirely different beast tonally and stylistically to McDonagh’s previous effort despite retaining the same leading man. Those expecting the affable misanthropy and jokes that The Guard have should throw those expectations away immediately. It’s undeniably the work of the same filmmaker, but this is a quantum leap in his maturation as an artist. The comedy on display here is so black and bleak it still measures as only a black speck under a spotlight, but it’s also one of the year’s most quietly contemplative and deeply complex films. It certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste, especially those checking in for potential laughs from a supporting cast mostly known for comedies, but for those willing to be caught off guard by engaging and thoughtful material it’s a powerful piece of work.
In a sleepy Irish seaside community Father James (Brendan Gleeson) has recently been told via a confession from a parishioner that in one week’s time he will be murdered for the sins of the Catholic Church. James hasn’t done anything wrong. He’s a good man, which means his death will send more of a message to those in the church that refused to acknowledge or weep for the children who were raped and abused for decades while those in power turned a blind eye.
James knows precisely who is trying to kill him, and yet being a good Christian who thinks he’s good at his job, he says nothing and proceeds to go about what might be his final week on Earth like nothing is wrong. The first interesting and unconventional gambit made by Gleeson and his writer/director is that we’re never sure about James’ mindset. Driven into the priesthood by personal tragedy and demons, it’s known that he’s a man who has suffered greatly in life and that he seems undeserving of bad things to happen to him. He also seems like a patient man that has grown fed up with not making much of a difference in his community. There’s a real question as to whether or not James actually wants to die or not.
McDonagh traces James’ Pinteresque and picturesque final week with a convincing degree of societal banality that underlies much greater and bigger themes to unpack than the single sentence plot description. In terms of style and execution, Calvary is one of the most stunningly photographed cinematic experiences of the year. In terms of tone, construction, and temperament, McDonagh finds himself more indebted to classical literature. There are heavy shades of Flannery O’Connor (although not very lovingly), Cervantes, and Joyce on display here. The dialogue is atypically arrhythmic in its construction. Not everyone outside of James speaks like a normal human being, and that’s kind of the point. It’s a realistic looking film with severe real world repercussions that finds itself rooted firmly on anti-romanticist ground. It’s hard to explain in words, but something about the film’s construction is a whole is positively haunting and bracing in the best possible ways.
James is forced to interact with a community full of people in crisis, some amusing, some sad, all memorably portrayed by a stacked cast of reliable actors and actresses. James has to constantly suffer through the ignorance of his colleague and fellow father Leary (David Wilmot). He finds himself caught trying to make sense of a potentially abusive love triangle between the most promiscuous woman in town (Orla O’Rourke), her butcher ex (Chris O’Dowd), and her gruff new boyfriend (Issach De Bankole). He’s constantly being approached by a supercilious rich neighbour (Dylan Moran) who thinks giving the church a shite load of money is equivalent to spiritual penance. He’s asked by an elderly, largely shut-in ex-pat novelist (M. Emmet Walsh) to procure a gun for him from a local shady law enforcer with a bizzaro gay friend who thinks he’s an early 1930s New York gangster. He has a chat with a young man (Killan Scott) who has given up on the opposite sex and is thinking of joining the army for wholly illogical and sexist reasons. He visits with a convicted murderer and cannibal (played by Brendan’s real life son, Domnhall) who seeks priestly advice. The local doctor-slash-coroner (Aidan Gillen) seems to get off on explaining to James the gorier details regarding the finality of death and the absence of a higher power. The most likable and sympathetic person in James’ life is his visiting daughter from his widowed wife (Kelly Reilly), and even she’s just getting over a suicide attempt.
The community that James has lived in has had enough of living in Ireland and no one has control over their own lives anymore. There’s always some unseen force hanging over everyone except for James, giving the film more of a philosophical feel than the spiritual one that the main character’s profession suggests. Everyone has suffered in this film as a result of downturns in their lives economically, sexually, personally, spiritually, or politically, and the crux of McDonagh’s work here comes from watching the one good man in town have to pay for the perceived sins of a community. As the figurehead of all that’s righteous, James isn’t a perfect person, but he deserves better than how mostly everyone treats him.
Gleeson commands the screen and the Irish countryside littered with various broken characters are his sandbox to create one of the best performances of his career. He imbues James with a sense of ambiguity, careful to never make him seem otherworldly in his holiness. He’s an everyman who heeded a higher calling, and probably the smartest, least bigoted person in the community. He has suffered and will continue to suffer until his resolve is finally pushed to a breaking point. How Gleeson manifests that breaking point, however, is nothing short of a major accomplishment in terms of how he’s matching McDonagh’s hard edged material with a sense of dignity and grace instead of resigned resignation.
It’s probably going to be pretty easy to figure out the identity of the person who wants to kill James, but that’s not the point of Calvary. There’s actually too much to unpack from this film in a single sitting for me to really venture many guesses in terms of what it’s all about. It’s the kind of work that could mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and that’s what makes it so special for attentive viewers and potentially off putting for anyone who wants a film’s symbolic and subtextual undercurrent spelled out for them. It’s a journey into a bucolic, yet somehow hellish community populated by saints, sinners, and the misunderstood alike, and damn if it isn’t one of the best experiences I’ve had watching a film this year.