[pullquote cite=”” type=”left, right”][amazon text=Amazon&template=carousel&chan=That Film Guy&asin=B00JO9O392][/pullquote] Upon seeing John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary as a follow-up film to his his debut The Guard, the latter seems almost farcical in its comedy. Any concerns that he is a one-trick pony director is quickly dispelled from the opening scene. Where The Guard takes a whimsical look at parochial Ireland, Calvary goes for the jugular, addressing the concerns of an entire nation through a look at a slice of quiet life in a small town.
Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is a good man, always trying his best to uphold the moral virtues and intelligent thinking that escapes so many. However, while taking a confessional with an unknown man he is informed that in two weeks time he’ll be murdered as a statement against the abuse that has been revealed in the Irish Catholic priesthood for years. Over the course of that period of time he is given, he looks to set his affairs in order, while trying to help a disparate group of locals who are overwhelmed with cynicism, depression and a complete lack of anything resembling a moral compass.
A dark comedy that weighs in more heavily on the dark than the comedy, Calvary is an unapologetic look at Ireland at this particular moment in its history. The supporting cast who make up Father James parish include a disgraced banker (Dylan Moran), a Godless surgeon (Aidan Gillen), a potentially abusive drunk (Chris O’Dowd) and a convicted rapist and murderer (Domhnall Gleeson). Each have their own take on God and church and seem to be in James’ life to test him on every level of his belief in the two weeks leading to his potentially fatal showdown with a formerly abused boy-turned-man.
While he sometimes struggles with their rationality, there are people in his life who provide some level of support, notably his own daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) who returns to Ireland from the UK following an unsuccessful suicide attempt.
While the themes are broad and serious, McDonagh peppers his script with a comedic moments that break the tension and bring some much-needed humanity to the relentlessly heavy subject matter. With each big idea raised, from the banking crisis to disassociated feelings of frustration and violence there are small scenes of comedy. There is one scene where Father James is discussing the options of a young man who is considering joining the army because of recent urges to kill. Their exchange is almost a complete satire that by all rights should feel at odds with the rest of the film, but actually elevates everything else to a level of superior farce that is so difficult to accomplish.
Gleeson once again shows his depth and emotional range as an actor, providing the film with its solitary hero in a town full of outlaws. In fact it’s such an impressive a display of goodness that its impossible not to be completely on his side, even as revelations of his own battles with addiction and depression are unveiled.
The Biblical elements are nicely handled too. Being set in small town Ireland the Catholic Church still have an important part to play, but constant stories of abuse have taken their toll on everyone’s beliefs and faith, both in the Priesthood and in religion itself. The name is a reference to the place of Jesus’ execution site, which should explain the macrocosm elements of the story and the parallels to be drawn between Father James and the son of God.
There are elements of McDonagh’s direction that will frustrate some, notably his insistence on Father James’ meta comments How’s that for an opening line? that have a tendency to snap you out of the story. This aside, McDonagh escalates the sweeping vistas from The Guard to present the Irish countryside as a cold, unforgiving but ultimately beautiful environment. Anyone familiar for Wally Pfister’s cinematography in any Christopher Nolan film will recognise the still distance view of surprising natural beauty. There really is no doubt that this a film, with a capital F, which sets it apart from so many other dark comedies.
Calvary is a staggering piece of work from a second-time director. It misses the mark in a couple of regards, but as a piece of art that paints broad strokes on big ideas, it’s almost unparalleled. It’ll be interesting to see where McDonagh goes from here, but it would be interesting to see how he copes with something not set in Ireland.