“Calvary” is one of those movies which left me in a deep state of contemplative silence after it was over. While it is advertised as a darkly comic tale, and it does have some funny moments, it is really a serious story about sin, faith, and of what it means to be a good person in this day and age. I am always fascinated with movies about Catholics as they deal with characters who suffer psychologically, who are always caught up in one sin or another, and who can’t deal with the state of the world today in a relatively sane manner. The word Calvary is defined as an experience or an occasion of extreme suffering, especially mental suffering, and it is the perfect title for this particular movie.
The character who suffers most in “Calvary” is Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson), and the movie opens with him listening to an unseen parishioner who confesses to being sexually abused by a priest when he was a boy. But then the conversation takes a sinister turn when the parishioner tells Father James he will kill him in a week. When Father James asks why, the parishioner tells him it is because he is a good man as well as a good priest, and a good priest’s death will have a far more devastating impact on the Catholic Church. From there, Father James has a week to settle his affairs with the townspeople and his family, and hopefully give him time to discover the identity of his purported assailant. But more than anything else, we will see his faith in the things he believes in get tested more than ever before.
“Calvary” takes place in the small Irish town of Sligo where everyone seems to know one another quite intimately. The more we get to know the town’s inhabitants, the more it seems like any of them could be the one who wants to murder Father James. They all have problems in their lives which have led them to lose their faith or belief in God, and while they come to Father James for help, they also tease and question him over his supposed rule over the town and for supporting a church forever tarnished by scandal.
The movie was written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, brother of the insanely talented playwright Martin McDonagh. It’s tempting to think John would be suffering endlessly under his famous brother’s shadow especially after “In Bruges,” but he has already found his voice thanks to his previous film “The Guard.” With “Calvary,” he goes even deeper to explore issues of faith in a time where virtue seems like it’s in such short supply. As good hearted as Father James is, he is surrounded by people who have been scarred deeply by life and have sinned in one way or another. Heck, there are even people who go out of their way to flout their sins in his face just to see how he will react.
What’s really shocking about “Calvary” is John has gotten away with creating a truly good priest. Father James proves to be a good-natured man right from the start, and it made me realize how we don’t always see good characters like these in movies these days. Most characters we typically see are antiheroes or deeply flawed human beings struggling for some form of redemption, and it feels like filmmakers avoid using good characters in their movies for the fear of them appearing quite dull. This is not to say that Father James is not without his own flaws, but even when he waivers you feel his goodness flowing throughout, and you pray he doesn’t falter in the face of what seems at times like a godless town.
John also struck gold by casting Brendan Gleeson as Father James as the actor gives one of the very best performances of his career here. What I love about Gleeson here is he inhabits his character more than he plays him. From start to finish, he is simply Father James, and he gives this character an unforced naturalism which looks easy to portray, but in actuality is quite difficult to pull off. One scene which stands out is when Father James befriends a young girl whom he finds walking along the road by herself, only to be interrupted by the girl’s father who suspects this Catholic priest of being up to no good. It’s a painful moment as we, the audience, have gotten to know Father James quite well, and Gleeson makes the character’s wounded feelings all the more palpable.
Gleeson is also surrounded by a top-notch cast as well. Kelly Reilly, so good in “Eden Lake” and “Flight,” plays Father James’ daughter Fiona who was at one time suicidal and is now very eager to repair her relationship with her dad. From that description, this could have been a subplot overrun by a plethora of clichés, but Reilly invests her character with a wounded strength, and her scenes with Gleeson are wonderfully moving.
We all remember Chris O’Dowd from his star-making performance in “Bridesmaids,” and he is stunning here as Jack, the local butcher who doesn’t seem to mind his wife constantly cheating on him. O’Dowd has some funny moments here, but his role is a serious one as he constantly dares Father James to prove to him there is a god. It should be no surprise O’Dowd is as good as he is in “Calvary,” but then again, we still live in a world where most people think doing comedy is easy while making people cry is hard (it’s the other way around folks).
Irish comedian Dylan Moran successfully wrings the complexity out of his character Michael Fitzgerald, an extremely wealthy man whose life seems to have lost all its meaning. You also have Aidan Gillen here as the gleefully atheist surgeon Dr. Frank Harte, Marie Josee Croze as French tourist Teresa who suffers an unspeakable tragedy, Isaach de Bankole as car mechanic Simon Asamoah who does not like to be bossed around, David Wilmot as the good-natured but rather oblivious Father Leary, Pat Short as the incensed barman Brendan Lynch, Gary Lydon as shady detective Inspector Gerry Stanton, Killian Scott who plays the lovesick Milo, and Orla O’Rourke as the butcher’s flagrantly unfaithful wife Veronica. You even have veteran actor M. Emmet Walsh showing up here as American novelist Gerard Ryan, and even Brendan’s son Domhnall Gleeson shows up, and he looks completely unrecognizable by the way, as serial killer Freddie Joyce.
Every single actor in “Calvary” gives an exceptional performance. It doesn’t matter how big or small the roles are because all are very well written, and each actor seizes the material with tremendous passion. Every character is fully realized here, and no one looks to be off their acting game for one second.
While “Calvary” is a kind of whodunit story, it really doesn’t matter if you know the identity of the person threatening Father James long before it’s revealed because it’s not the point. What matters is how Father James struggles to maintain his faith as dark forces continually close in around him, and you pray he doesn’t lose an ounce of it in the movie’s climax. In the process, John forces you to question your own faith and of what means to be a good person in an increasingly cynical world.
“Calvary” does end on an ambiguous note which may annoy some members of the audience, but I happen to like ambiguous endings, and the one here is perfect. No, it doesn’t provide us with an easy answer, but so what? Not all movies are meant to have easy answers, and this one certainly wouldn’t benefit from any. Every once in a while, it is a good to watch a movie which really forces you to think long and hard about what you just saw.
If nothing else, John came up with a lot of great quotes which will stay with the viewer long after the movie has ended. My favorite has already been spoiled by the movie’s trailer:
“I think there’s too much talk about sins to be honest and not enough talk about virtues.”
Never has a truer line been spoken in a movie released in 2014.
* * * * out of * * * *
Click here to read an exclusive interview I did with John Michael McDonagh on “Calvary.”