2014, John Michael McDonagh

The portrayal of priests in cinema has been going on practically since the medium began but with the kind of scandals that have been made public recently there’s now a loaded factor to them that hovers above whether they’re directly addressed or not. Calvary, the second film from The Guard writer/director John Michael McDonagh, centers on a good priest who’s never done any of the type of acts that others in his field have been convicted of but he still has to suffer for their crimes in his own way. With the sharp gallows humor that the McDonagh brothers (John and brother Martin of In Bruges fame) are known for, Father James Lavelle is constantly mocked openly and passively by members of the small Irish coastal town he serves in. He remains a member of the community the same as everyone else and weekly services are held that seem to bring the majority of the town’s small population but he can’t seem to walk around without being reminded in some way of the kind of thoughts that come to mind when people see that collar in the modern day. 

This is just one element of McDonagh’s Calvary, a deceptively layered and thematically rich study on this man’s life, but it’s one that comes to play within the very first line as a man sits down in the confession booth and informs Father Lavelle (played by McDonagh favorite Brendan Gleeson) that he is going to murder him in a week’s time. This mystery figure gives the Father the week to get his affairs in orders and what follows are seven days in the man’s life as he interacts with the various members of this societal microcosm. Calvary wisely avoids becoming a kind of thriller where the audience is supposed to guess who the man is, all leading up to a big twist reveal at the end. McDonagh lays out the premise and quickly has Lavelle establish that he knows who the person is but won’t reveal it and so there’s not a lot of attention given to what would have been a rather rudimentary idea. I had my own theory and I was wrong, but Calvary contains so many things far more enriching than a simple whodunnit. 

I find it interesting to have seen a lot of people say that they don’t think Calvary should be classified as a dark comedy because they didn’t find anything humorous about it (though they still liked the film a great deal) since I was practically in fits of laughter on a regular basis. I actually thought people may find the comedic elements as being tonally off for such a bleak Irish drama, but it seems that some others didn’t think there were any to be had in the first place. Unlike The Guard, a picture I wasn’t fond of, I felt as though McDonagh meshed the contrasting tones very well here, off-setting the kind of wrenching, dreary atmosphere and somber narrative with some very sharp wit that never feels like it’s being crass, vulgar and offensive just for the sake of shock value. It helps that he’s got a great cast delivering his material. 

Gleeson proves an adept lead no matter what the script is calling for and the diverse ensemble around him is built from actors known for all various types of projects, with particularly strong work given by Chris O’Dowd, M. Emmet Walsh and Marie-Josee Croze. Domhnall Gleeson (son of Brendan) has only one brief scene but he is absolutely killer in it as well. At first I did feel that the supporting characters were a bit underserved and I was irritated in the way that we were seemingly supposed to find them as buffoons compared to Lavelle’s intelligent superior but over time McDonagh and the cast fleshed out this world and used that feeling to cultivate a greater understanding of how this man was being seen in the eyes of the people around him. McDonagh frames the movie through the eyes of Lavelle and so instinctively we see him as the good guy fighting all the bad in the world but the eventual reveal of who the mystery figure is opens up a whole new layer that warrants a greater reflection on everything that came before it. 

Throughout Calvary we’re looking at a pattern of broken lives who are trying to find something to latch onto — whether or not they seek solace in the words of the town’s good, devoted priest — and Lavelle doesn’t seem capable of truly helping any of them. This is a very modern story told in a classic way, and it reflects the fact that Lavelle is a man trying to lie in a past world that no longer exists. We are constantly, subtly, reminded of things like those religious crimes and the economic crisis that are bringing a general sense of dissatisfaction that’s permeating the majority of society and threatening to reach up and overcome us, yet Lavelle is apathetic to it all — people are falling apart and he’ll lend an ear and some words but at the end of the day he’s just sitting peacefully in his room with his dog, reading a book and seeing the world fall apart as his church stands fine and nothing’s changed for him. Calvary presents this priest as our hero but on reflection perhaps he’s the greatest villain of them all. His daughter, played by Kelly Reilly whose scenes admittedly get a little too repetitive, criticizes him for the sin of omission and it seems that this omission, or indifference, is what finds him in the predicament he’s in. 

At the same time, there’s almost a vanity or selfishness in the direction that McDonagh ultimately takes this character. Gleeson does a great job of portraying a man who is resigned to this fate simply because he was told it was going to happen, and there’s a recurring theme of suicide that gives off the impression that maybe he wanted to die but, as he told his suicidal daughter, if he killed himself he wouldn’t be allowed into heaven so he needed someone else to do it for him. Near the end of the film, Reilly’s character brings up a list of famous people who committed suicide and among them is Jesus Christ which brings into greater light the way that Calvary can be seen as an allegory for Christ himself. There are many parallels between Lavelle and the man that offer plenty of room for exploration; how we walks through this world while other people berate him, attack him, eventually beat him up or at the very least use him as a sounding board for their sickest, most perverted thoughts because they know he can’t do anything about it (or perhaps they’re just desperate for him to talk them out of it) and he takes it all. 

Every scene in Calvary gives us Lavelle’s perspective, no one else’s, and yet we become privy to every dark temptation, twisted secret and perverted behavior that the people in this town are party to. As a priest, whether it’s from people mocking you, looking for absolution or just aware that they can say whatever they want to you under the guise of seeking counsel and you can’t do anything about it, Lavelle is forced to harbor all of this knowledge in his mind and with that kind of a life it’s no wonder that someone could maybe want out. These aren’t all bad people, but even the good ones are sucked into bad thoughts like murder or suicide, or the one seemingly wholesome figure loses her husband in a car accident while she has no scratch on her and has to continue living. Lavelle is that person with no scratch, but sometimes that’s the hardest part to play. When I first reached the end of Calvary I honestly wasn’t sure what to make of it; I found it interesting but without enough meat on its bones for it to truly make an impact. Strangely I found it sitting with me and as I reflected on it more and more I grew to appreciate it and come to realize the many fascinating, thoughtful layers that McDonagh textures underneath what at first could be seen as almost mundane. 

B+

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