When a film opens with a priest being told that he will be killed in a week as punishment for centuries of sin by the Catholic Church, you wouldn’t expect the movie that follows to be a comedy. Yet that’s exactly what John Michael McDonagh has accomplished in ‘Calvary’. The filmmaker’s captivating follow-up to ‘The Guard’ is part ‘Father Ted’, part Tarantino, part serious exploration of the nature of faith, and all terrific.
That priest-with-a-limited-lifespan is played by the incomparable Brendan Gleeson, who served similar duties for McDonagh in ‘The Guard‘. Their last collaboration quickly became the highest-grossing Irish independent film of all time. While their follow-up is certainly more ambitious and serious in intent and purpose, it’s not quite as smoothly executed or purely enjoyable. ‘The Guard’ was an exercise in jet black comedy with surprising emotional heft, while ‘Calvary’ matches that and adds hints of philosophical spirituality. From the first scene on, Gleeson’s priest is essentially marching to his death as a sacrificial lamb for the sins of the Church, with all the symbolic implications you could imagine. (The Irish may not have invented Catholic guilt, but they certainly perfected it.) Yet the story plays out like a quirky Coen brothers crime mystery/character comedy.
At the beginning of the film, Gleeson’s good-natured Father James is taking confession from an anonymous parishioner who claims to have been molested as a child and threatens to murder him for the wrongdoings of the Church. As Father James calmly sizes up the possible perpetrators in his village, we’re introduced to a cavalcade of Irish comedic actors all given roles perfectly suited to their talents. The lovable Chris O’Dowd plays a dumbbell racist butcher with a heart of gold. Aiden Gillen pops up as a cynical coke-snorting doctor. Best of all is the brilliant stand-up comedian Dylan Moran, who plays an acidic, alcoholic, rich prick who made his millions helping crush the national economy. (Moran’s few scenes practically steal the film away.) Every nook and cranny of the island is filled some fascinating face and unique talent, like the long-missing-from-action M. Emmet Walsh (‘Blood Simple’) as a grizzled novelist, and the lovely Kelly Reilly as Gleeson’s suicidal daughter. McDonagh creates a hermetically sealed world of Irish eccentrics that would be charmingly quirky were it not for the fact that at least one of them is plotting murder.
On the surface, ‘Calvary’ almost feels like ‘Twin Peaks’ minus the dwarf, and McDonagh’s visual style has matured enough in this second feature that he has the chops to deliver atmosphere worthy of the comparison. However, in place of David Lynch’s surrealist magic is an exploration of Catholic faith, which the writer/director clearly has a complex relationship with. Though he keeps the film grounded in the realm of quirky reality, McDonagh is unafraid to shove long monologues into his actor’s mouth exploring the contradictions, frustrations and confusion inherent in maintaining faith in the modern world. The director cast the film well enough that these moments never feel like grandstanding, but they do create an occasionally awkward sense of pacing that may or may not have been intentional. Sometimes the film will hit an overly didactic note, and some of the scenes involving Gleeson and Reilly’s father/daughter relationship are too on-the-nose (even self-consciously so in one scene). The movie serves up a few bum notes, but it’s so strange and ambitious in execution that the flaws are easily forgivable.
One element that never falters is Brendon Gleeson, a pillar of character acting over the last few decades who has a face that can express years of pain before opening his mouth. ‘The Guard’ let Gleeson mug gloriously, but ‘Calvary’ offers a more internal performance. He’s a sounding board for the characters around him. Even though he rarely explodes with fits of emotion, when he does, the actor delivers subtle, nuanced and pained work. It’s a remarkable performance that has an immeasurable impact holding the film together.
Gleeson and McDonagh have quickly become a wonderful director/actor team able to bring out each other’s strengths. They’re both artists interested in the strangeness of the real world and mixing comedy with tragedy to express that vision. ‘Calvary’ is a wonderful showcase for the talents of both men. It’s a rich, thoughtful, playful, hilarious, dark, disturbing and memorable film. More importantly, it’s a movie that only McDonagh and Gleeson could have delivered, so hopefully it won’t be the last they make together.