UK Release Date 11th April 2014
Director John Michael McDonagh
Starring Brendan Gleeson
Runtime 100 Minutes
Certificate 15
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 13th April 2014

I’m not sure how but one way or another I completely missed The Guard. I know, even the other half of Broken Shark was astonished. Suitably chastened and having seen John Michael McDonagh’s latest, it’s a situation I shall be rectifying as soon as possible.

Whilst I’m on with that though, we have McDonagh’s latest writer / director piece, Calvary. Set in Sligo, it follows a week in the life of Brendan Gleeson’s Father James. Father James begins that week in somewhat unfortunate fashion when a mystery resident enters his confessional and informs the father that he will kill him a week Sunday (so he has time to put his affairs in order). It would appear that the confessor was viscously abused by a priest as a child and as the perpetrator is now dead, having escaped justice to the last, he has decided that an innocent priest is going to take the fall for it (as killing a bad priest wouldn’t be as shocking).

Father James is forced to take the news on face value and spends the week partly trying to prove who it is and partly administering to the wide collection of lunatics that make up his parish. Throw in a visit from his daughter fresh from another suicide attempt and he pretty much has his hands full. Attempting to stay on the wagon enforced by a past drink problems is clearly going to be a challenge.

McDonagh’s film is a heady mix of hyped up oddball characters, laugh out loud gags, gallows humour and meditation on the nature of faith. Which is a pretty rare combination to carry off with any degree of success. To carry it off this successfully is impressive. A good part of this is McDonagh’s own smartly written script - equally at home with discussing faith and responsibilities as it is with having a character admit that a recent confessional has forced him to look up 'feltching'. A good part of rest is Brendan Gleeson’s wonderful performance. As the flawed Father James, Gleeson portrays a man clearly battling with his faith and McDonagh’s script never gives him any easy answers. “Don’t you have anything to say to me Father” asks the confessor. “Not right now, no” is his answer “But I’m sure I’ll have something by Sunday week”. This isn’t a religious leader with pious easy answers for any situation, it’s a man who has lived life and turned to the church. A stark contrast to his assistant, fresh out of the seminary and seemingly having faced very little in the way of reality. Father James is as confused and lost as the rest of his flock, a navigator with a shonky compass and a chart he only partly believes.

It’s a distinction that the flock seem only too aware of and are happy to exploit for their own, bored entertainment. The local butcher’s wife (Orla O’Rourke) delights in firing innuendo at him and refusing to reveal the perpetrator of her black eye, local lad Milo happily describes his violent tendencies to him, admitted afterwards that the advice given to him (pretty thin) wasn’t really much help but it’s nice to get it off his chest and the local doctor (Aidan Gillen) happily fills out the self described ‘atheist doctor’ stereotype. None of the characters seem particularly interested in redemption, the only exceptions being a writer living on an island (M. Emmet Walsh) and eventually a morally bankrupt millionaire (Dylan Moran). The former seeming to be the only person who genuinely harbours no ill-will towards Father James and the latter gradually going from venal showoff to finally admitting that he needs help. 

McDonagh overlays his borderline knockabout humour on a background of brooding darkness. The verdant greens of the countryside surrounding Sligo glide past in aerial shots as a dark tone plays on the soundtrack and storm clouds gather. The locals are outwardly friendly but there is always a darker undercurrent to their banter. The doctor acknowledges his own stereotype but at the same time his vitriol goes beyond him playing a role. At the same time the movie bounces between surface humour and genuinely heart rending situations. Moran’s ex-banker invites the Father up to his mansion, on the pretext of a financial arrangement that the Father may be interested in but essentially to show off his great wealth. In an effort to prove how little any of it means to him, he pulls down a priceless painting and pisses on it. We cut to the next scene where the father is administering the last rights to a tourist hospitalised in a car accident with drunken locals. His wife, completely unscathed stands by as if to emphasise how utterly unfair the situation is. It’s a brutal shift in tone but the darkness underpinning the humour carries it through without jarring.

Calvary is a wonderful piece of filmmaking. Relentlessly dark but conversely, entirely chipper, it drags you through a kind of state of faith exercise. From the recently widowed tourist who questions how little faith others had if they lost it so easily to the curmudgeonly old writer who takes mass and later asks the priest to supply him with a gun so he has the option of ending his own life, it is stuffed with fascinating characters whose motives are largely ruinous. The pre-murder mystery is merely a framing for bigger questions and odder behaviour. The ending, well, I won’t ruin it and different people will probably take different things from it but from my point of view, there is light coming from the bottomless dark, albeit one that flickers. Beautifully photographed, sharply scripted, belly-achingly funny, deep and with a performance from Gleeson that is almost divine, Calvary will have you thinking beyond the movie, even as you ponder that ending and the significance of the stills that flash up during the credits.

Check out the trailer here.

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