By Simon Miraudo
June 5, 2014
Those devilish McDonagh boys, always zigging when you think they’ll zag. John Michael McDonagh – brother of Oscar-winning In Bruges director Martin – follows up his dirt-black buddy comedy The Guard with despairing anti-hymn Calvary. It plays out like a parable, or, maybe, some half-remembered joke, with Brendan Gleeson‘s generous Father James learning of a mysterious parishioner’s desire to murder him; not for his sins, per se, but for those of other child-molesting men of the cloth. The mission is spelled out to him in the picture’s first scene, during confession, and James admires it as “a startling opening line.” Even in a piece as dark and sombre as Calvary, the self-referential, anarchic McDonagh’s sincerity remains inscrutable. His uncanny talent as a tightrope-walking filmmaker, however, is as clear as Christ on the cross.
Dread’s long shadow looms over Calvary, with Father James resigned to meeting his supposed murderer on the beach – on a Sunday, no less – as arranged during confession. He is, after all, a man devoted to his duties. As he awaits D-day in this small, coastal Irish town that no longer has any use for him, he continues to visit all the residents and try to offer the suffering some solace. (It’s telling that we never really see Father James being called anywhere; he just is, everywhere.) His eventual spiral into doubt, suspicion, and violence begins with the bleak realisation that pretty much any member of his flock might just be sociopathic, cynical, and hopeless enough to want him dead. Is it worth sticking around simply to keep supporting these potential killers? Well, this is the best compliment he receives, following one particular clearing of a conscience: “I can’t say it’s been much help, but it’s good to get these things out in the open I suppose.”
Ireland’s already-startling Catholic decline has been amplified in Calvary, with each citizen entirely dubious of the Church and its representative in James. A number of familiar Irish faces populate the town, including Chris O’Dowd, Aiden Gillen and Dylan Moran. Kelly Reilly recurs, significantly, as Father James’ suicidal daughter, while Brendan’s real-life son, Domhnall Gleeson, also pops up, though he’s given just one scene as an incarcerated cannibal for whom the patient Father James only barely suffers.
But Gleeson’s is the most welcome face of all. This gem of an actor is seemingly only awarded leading man status when John Michael McDonagh is at the helm. Now, with two films under their collective belt, this pairing is proving to be one of cinema’s most essential. Father James is not quite as acidic as The Guard‘s Gerry Boyle and he goes about his many private and public shamings with dignity and only-mild frustration. Making him wait for his own personal crucifixion – to die for the sins of others – is a big ask. For Gleeson as well; to have him stand-in as Jesus, in a tale that suggests maybe the Romans had a point. It takes a performer of his stature to pull it off. I could add that he’s fantastic here, but you knew that long before you read this review.
McDonagh’s dance with tone and topic is a perilous one. At any moment Calvary – which fuses righteous condemnation of organised religion with goofy vignettes of village life – could be undone by histrionics, nihilism, misjudged stings of humour or its characters’ frequent meta commentary. (“How’s that for a third act revelation?”) And yet, Calvary positively glides to its finale, coasting on Larry Smith’s dreamy cinematography and Gleeson’s calming demeanour. Still, McDonagh keeps finding ways to sneak in snort-funny lines of dialogue. “I think she’s bipolar, or lactose intolerant. One of the two.” Give thanks. This movie has almost too many rewards.
Calvary plays the Sydney Film Festival June 5 and 6.