CALVARY Review

From the outset of John Michael McDonagh's new film Calvary there is a deeply ominous tone due mostly to the nature of conversation and a single threat that lingers over the picture. The film is decidedly honest in the way it approaches the subject of life and pleasantly unpretentious in the way it deals with the psychology of religion and faith. These aforementioned subjects, these lines of thought and the conversations that spurn from them are always of an interest to me that surpass that of any material subject and McDonagh, working from a script solely of his own doing, plays with these ideas and themes in a way that entices without distancing itself from those who find solace in God. In a way, McDonagh uses the comforts and consolation given by faith and Christ as a cushion for the stories of human nature he chooses to explore here. Not only does the inclusion of a heavy hand in the church bring an interesting dynamic to the more individual stories being told, but it adds layers of concentration on sins and virtues and what, if anything, they add up to. It is easy to look at something such as Calvary and praise it for its beautiful cinematography, its gorgeous music, its fine performances and intelligently constructed screenplay that oozes with dialogue that screams serious thought, but it's the fine line the film walks between being serious about its subjects and ironic about their thoughts that make it all the more fascinating. McDonagh is a sly writer who puts an emphasis on character and lets the themes and ideas breathe through the development of these people and the interesting set of circumstances he has placed them in. The dialogue that says so much and could easily be read deeper into concerning the writers stance on certain issues and points of view simply come off as true to the character speaking them than as any kind of agenda or showy quality. It is to this effect that Calvary succeeds in being more than a story about the priesthood and the scandals that have come along with that profession, but what it's like to be a person in that role innocent of the stigmas and the vicious cycle that rarely forgives the exceptions.

Fiona (Kelly Reilly) visits her father (Brendan Gleeson) in the small Irish town where he resides.
Father James sits in the confessional of his small Irish church before Sunday mass. His face is sullen yet strangely optimistic. The priest, who seems seasoned at this point, understands the nature of confession and what he will hear, what he will need to absolve and the standard penance he will distribute. As he readies himself the first line of dialogue is spoken and he is taken off guard, so much so that he instinctively replies that it is certainly a startling opening line. It is indeed and from this moment we are taken into the world of Father James and the result of that single confession which ends with a promise to take his life in a weeks time, but not because of any sins he's committed but for the bad things people in his line of work have done. "Killing a priest on a Sunday, that will be a good one," the mysterious voice says from the other side of the confessional screen. The film then cuts to the middle of mass as Father James hands out the Body of Christ to his parishioners and as he does we catch a glimpse of the townspeople, the potential suspects and the avenues through which McDonagh will explore the nature of what it's like to be a genuinely good priest in a world where everyone suspects ulterior motives. There is Veronica (Orla O'Rourke) and Jack Brennan (Chris O'Dowd in a great performance), the man Veronica is likely having an affair with (Isaach De Bankolé) as well as a slew of other characters including the local rich guy (Dylan Moran), the atheist doctor (Aidan Gillen), a seasoned writer nearing the end of his life (M. Emmet Walsh) and a young man so bored with life he's given himself the ultimatum of either joining the military or killing himself (Killian Scott). These individuals are meant to represent the variety of any number of people in the world and in many ways the caveats of humanity that are worse people than the priest, but don't necessarily have to deal with the inherent assumptions that plague the smallest of his actions. There is one scene in particular in which McDonagh has Father James spark up a casual, innocent conversation with a young girl only to have her dad visibly lose his composure when he sees this priest talking to his child, illustrating a break in the typically solid shell of Father James. This and the single scene appearance of Gleeson's real-life son Domhnall open up the philosophy of our central priest in a way that resonates in all he does.

What makes Calvary one of the best films if not the best I've seen this year though is the way in which it explores every avenue of our wide-ranging humanity with such ease. Father James is a genuinely good person and he is our hero here. Where we might typically come to terms with the villain or anti-hero of a piece being the most interesting part of the story, McDonagh is able to take advantage of what we've come to expect from priests in movies and turn it on its head because James is nothing if not a decent human being. Each and every encounter the Father goes through with the people mentioned above reveals more about his character and his thoughts on the world-how he came to be who he is today and why he feels the way he feels. James integrates himself into this small village and the lives of the people around him in a way that never feels intrusive (he asks more questions than he does actually preach anything), but more out of an obligation to aid their souls in finding a fair balance. This isn't just the plight of a priest trying to right the wrongs in his little patch of land though, but moreover this is an exploration of the constant questioning James has in his own faith and how he can only learn and grow through the experiences he creates for himself. Feelings, as we think of them, can be so vague and hard to decipher yet the way in which the film explores them is the way James explores his faith: the yearning to understand the root cause of what guided his particular path in the first place and more how that relates to the bigger questions of life and its meaning. This is better conveyed than we've seen before on screen because despite the fact many of us think of priests as certain kinds of people, they don't have an answer for everything. It doesn't hurt that Gleeson's performance (and presence alone) along with the fact James lived a substantial amount of his life before joining the priesthood give him a deeper, more nuanced presence than we might expect. Calvary is a culmination of these conversations and circumstances that Father James absorbs through the course of the film that we might expect to break him, but instead ends up displaying to those around him a strong sense of righteousness and integrity that they find hard to break with themselves, despite their best efforts.

Father James confront Jack Brennan (Chris O'Dowd) about a bruise that showed up on his wife's face.
There are certainly a number of existential questions to be gleaned from the film, but while we never find solace in something that tries to answer the unknown McDonagh requests we step back and ask ourselves if we romanticize things for our own sake, so they don't feel as matter of fact. Life is what it is and even if we were afforded the chance to know the secrets of the universe the hard truth is that we'd probably be disappointed in its answers. It may be that our brains, our imaginations and what we have done with our existence simply deserves more than surface-deep thought and anyone can appreciate that and hope we are at least worth that much. This line of thought brings us back around to the integrity Father James bestows on those around him in that there is so much focus on sin that if we looked at our virtues more often we might feel more optimistic about the outcome of our time here. As James says at one point, lacking integrity is the worst thing you can accuse someone. Gleeson's priest clearly sees as much of a need for structure as he does faith and this thought keeps him loyal to Catholicism, but he is worldly enough to understand the faults of his congregation and McDonagh guides his film to work in this same, non-judgmental light rather than allowing it to slip into cheap cynicism. Besides the countless thoughts and ideas that spool from the characters and situations McDonagh has put together Calvary also has the ambition of a large film to make it feel all the more looming and significant. There are beautiful, sweeping shots of Ireland that give the audience a sense of isolation, of a cornered off small town where these large complexities rise to the surface. Patrick Cassidy's score is fantastic and much of the staged imagery convey more than McDonagh's already intelligent dialogue could hope to convey. It would also be a shame to go this entire review without mentioning Kelly Reilly (Flight, Heaven is for Real) and the chemistry she shares with on-screen father Gleeson. There is such an emotional undercurrent to their relationship we take for granted her contributions until the final shot displays the vicious cycle of hate in the world and its repercussions of always catching the innocent in its crossfires.