Calvary

by Martin R. "Vargo" Schneider

EXPECTATIONS: As it stands right now, John Michael McDonagh is the lesser of the two filmmaker McDonagh Brothers, not because his debut film The Guard was bad, but because his younger brother Martin has pulled so far into the lead with In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. Calvary seems to be John Michael's attempt at taking on his brother's dark-natured tendencies, but I fear it could easily go way too far the other way and remove the underlying slapstick-silliness from the other films, which is part of what made them so good, and not just an unrelenting series of gut-punches. (Or, as the case might be, bullets to the part of your head that make it explode.)

On the other hand, maybe putting extra zaniness into the priest-rape movie is not the best idea.

REALITY: Gallows humor is apparently funnier when it's being told by the condemned.

Honestly, I'd watch two hours of Brendan Gleeson watching a sunset.Honestly, I'd watch two hours of Brendan Gleeson watching a sunset.

Calvary opens with Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson, the McDonaghs' best friend) taking confession from an unrevealed voice, who threatens to kill him in a week as a response to his own childhood abuse at the hands of a completely unrelated, now deceased priest. Father James takes this news surprisingly well, and spends the week getting his affairs in order, as the mysterious voice suggested. He continues on above and beyond his priestly duties in a parish full of side characters who seem to be practical embodiments of the seven deadly sins themselves. Father James investigates domestic abuse cases, counsels the lonely, angry, and even the murderous, and meanwhile attempts to reconcile past grievances with his estranged daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly, trying once again to escape being cast as "a Jessica Chastain type"). As we meet each of the community members, many of whom openly mock or disregard the priest's role in their society, the who'll-done-it noir stylings of the film build slowly and then fade away as we realize that figuring out who the threatening voice was isn't important; once your execution date is set, you don't really care what the hangman's name is.

Given the film's subject matter, it's really no surprise that the script is pitch-black comedy, but sparingly, so that the audience doesn't ever feel like they're the ones being punished. This would essentially be impossible with any lead actor of a lower caliber. Gleeson's imposing physical presence, combined with his expressiveness and amazing capacity for empathy, make Father James exactly what the film needs him to be: A stubborn shepard who understands and accepts that his flock are not only lost, but have no desire to be found and are actively working against him. (This metaphor actually falls apart to anyone who has actually seen sheep being herded and knows they lack the mental facilities to walk through a gate unsupervised, let alone plan murder.) To contrast this, Father James often finds himself at odds with a younger and much weaker-willed priest (David Wilmot), just in case at any point you were doubting the film's commitment to condemning the leadership of the Catholic church.

Nice Rocky room you got there, Chris.Nice Rocky room you got there, Chris.Most of what makes Calvary so entertaining and engrossing is its commitment to showing the darkest parts of humanity (and possibly especially contemporary Ireland?) while still not showing it as entirely without hope or merit. As a reflection of this, the cinematography is like a sunny day in winter, largely grey and muted, very cold, but never fully bleak. McDonagh and DP Larry Smith make great use of open space, often milling the screen with empty walls or fields while relegating the characters to one side or another. It's an effective technique that allows McDonagh to switch back and forth between characters in a conversation constantly, a stylistic choice which appears irritating when you first notice it, but is building towards a strong payoff in the final scene.

Calvary is one of the best films of 2014, hauntingly dark and evocative, and likely to stay with you long after the credits roll. Despite that, there is one minor shortcoming: most of the supporting cast and potential suspects are under-developed, barring a handful of exceptions who pull a lot out of solitary scenes. (I refer here to Brendan's son, Domnhall Gleason, playing a repentant serial killer, and to Killian Scott, playing an awkward young man who wants to join the Army because "not getting laid is giving me murderous thoughts.")

The movie knows this, and I know it knows this because both McDonagh brothers love to call attention to their shortcomings by breaking the fourth wall and winking at the camera. At one point, Aiden Gillen, playing an Atheist Doctor Who Speaks In Cliches, essentially looks at the camera and says he is playing the Cliched Part of Atheist Doctor. He also says this in the ridiculously inconsistent affectation he uses the whole time. It makes him sound like an eighth-grader on talk-like-a-pirate-day, and I have no idea why no one told him to stop.

Cinematography10/10
Gleason10/10
Religio-Social Criticism9/10
Chris O'Dowd9/10, even though I didn't find anywhere to talk about him in this review.
Everyone Else8/10
Overall46/50

MINORITY REPORT: I'm so glad I live in a world where there are two McDonaghs and I don't have to go too long without a new McDonagh/Gleeson collaboration. Really, that's the best pairing since Scorsese/De Niro. - Sean "Keanu Grieves" Hanson

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