Talking about Calvary is hard, because so much of what makes it work is either in its own words, or in its tone, of dark humor mixed with dark drama in such a way that you’re never sure if you meant to be devastated, amused, or baffled. It has a protagonist who resists easy interpretation, a story that treads the line between fable and allegory, and a cast of supporting characters who span the spectrum from good to grotesque, all adding up to a film that stands as a bewildering triumph.
Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) ministers to a small parish in County Sligo, Ireland. One day, a man comes to confess and tells Fr. Lavelle that he was molested by a priest as a boy, and his abuser having passed away, he wishes to take revenge on the church by killing a good priest–that is, Lavelle–rather than a bad one. He gives Lavelle a week to get his affairs in order. Lavelle knows who has made the threat, and is told that since the man did not actually confess his intentions, his threat is not protected by the sanctity of confession and the police may be informed. But Lavelle, even though he informs Inspector Stanton (Gary Lydon), does not appear to be frightened for his life, nor does he take any particular action to defend himself.
As the week progresses, the film does not follow a plot so much as observe Lavelle’s dealings with the members of his parish, which include:
- His daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), whom he has had a difficult relationship with since he joined the priesthood in the wake of her father’s death. After a botched suicide attempt, she comes to stay with him for a time, and as they spend time together their bond strengthens.
- Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran), a former investor who left the business after the 2008 financial meltdown and has since separated from his wife and children. Professing to care nothing for anything, let alone money, he tells Lavelle he has a business proposition, but his boorish attitude turns Lavelle away.
- An elderly writer (M. Emmet Walsh), who fears a lingering death and asks Lavelle to obtain a gun for him so he may die on his own terms.
- Veronica Brennan (Orla O’Rourke), a local women who openly cheats on her husband Jack (Chris O’Dowd), with Simon (Isaach de Bankolé). She teases Lavelle about her unrepentant sinning.
- Father Leary (David Wilmot), Lavelle’s associate who, unlike the somber, devout Lavelle, seems more concerned with money and adhering to modern trends.
- Milo Herlihy (Killian Scott), a young man who, unable to talk to women and trying to deal with violent thoughts, contemplates joining the Army.
- Teresa (Marie-Josée Croze), an Italian woman whose husband was killed in a car accident while they were visiting Sligo. A devout Catholic, Lavelle helps her cope with her loss.
- Leo (Owen Sharpe), who is sleeping with Inspector Stanton and affects a James Cagney-esque attitude, which conceals a tragic past.
- And, while not strictly speaking of the parish, Lavelle frequently deals with Dr. Frank Harte (Aidan Gillen), an atheist who frequently needles Lavelle on his beliefs and practices.
There are narrative events, to be sure–like the incineration of Lavelle’s church (not a spoiler, you see it in the trailer)–but the focus of the film is basically on the theme of a truly faithful man in a modern Ireland where Catholicism is so taken for granted it no longer has much meaning. He’s surrounded by doubt and cynicism, by those who want answers but think them unlikely to be found.
In 2011, John Michael McDonagh (brother of the playwright/filmmaker Martin McDonagh) made The Guard, a dark comedy starring Gleeson about a dissolute policeman in rural Ireland who teams up with an FBI agent (Don Cheadle) to shut down a drug trafficking operation. The film often ignored its plot in favor of developing its characters, particularly Gleeson, who alternates between drunkenness, drug use and carousing with prostitutes and tending to his dying mother (Fionnula Flanagan). This mixture of harshness and tenderness was key to the fascination of Gleeson’s character, just as the mixture of vulgar comedy and poignant drama was key to the fascination of the film itself; it’s tonally elusive in a way that keeps you on your toes.
Calvary is even more deft, beginning with a scene that involves the revelation of horrible acts with the timing of deadpan comedy. It would be monumentally tasteless in lesser hands, but McDonagh handles it perfectly. Despite its lack of a strong narrative, it never feels meandering, because whatever happens, Lavelle must confront his attacker on “Sunday next”, and because what happens in between is so hard to predict, let alone nail down the meaning of.
I’m not Catholic or particularly well-versed in Irish culture, but it wouldn’t shock me if there are layers of symbolism in Calvary which I simply lack the knowledge to grasp. Perhaps the nine stations of the Cross are evoked in the film’s structure? Not an impossible theory, given the title.
But to try to find meaning in Calvary is to become entrapped in the film’s own deadpan wiliness. Like the unassuming figure at the center of it, Calvary isn’t willfully holding back from you. It would deny there’s anything to hide.
McDonagh’s script is marvelous. Full of sharp dialogue, subtly but confidently constructed, and mysterious without being cryptic, it’s easily one of the best scripts of the year. And he’s a wholly capable director, maintaining the precise right tone, never getting cutesy or grim, even when things go wrong (and they do). Larry Smith’s cinematography is excellent as well, often setting characters against bare walls, often in the corner, isolated in an empty world. We also often see the local landscape, looming ominously and eternally around the tiny, forgotten town where the film takes place.
If the role of James Lavelle wasn’t written for Brendan Gleeson, it fits him perfectly; his beard alone says all we really need to know–it’s the most evocative piece of cinematic facial hair since Joaquin Phoenix’s moustache in Her. But Gleeson’s brilliance doesn’t stop there. He has a style all his own that he brings to the table, and while Lavelle is a genuinely good and decent man, he is human, and while the film isn’t so heavy-handed as to suggest he was some kind of commando or spy in his pre-clerical life, we see that there is anger alongside the love in Lavelle’s heart, and while he for the most part tempers it with goodness, it can come out, especially when he’s had too much to drink.
And as deadpan as he often is, there’s true tenderness in his love for Fiona and for his dog, Bruno (a really magnificent dog, that). And because of that goodness, the resistance he faces from those around him, who regard his attempts at counsel as nosy and who think of him as an anachronism (he wears a full cassock, while Fr. Leary only wears a collar and suit), is all the more saddening. And Gleeson never steps wrong, never milks a moment–at least not in any way you’d expect–never suggests anything but pure earnestness. It’s a top-notch piece of work from start to finish.
The supporting cast is all quite good, though by necessity they take a backseat to Gleeson. Reilly is easily the standout here, as a troubled young woman who simply wants to make a real connection, who felt abandoned by her father’s joining the priesthood after her mother’s death, who has clearly inherited her father’s regard for simple humanity. It’s a strong, low-key performance which, in keeping with the film’s nuances, doesn’t play up any “broken woman” tropes, but conveys an honest, ultimately loving humanity.
It’s hard to really pick a standout from the rest. All do a fine job, even Sharpe, whose antics admittedly border on the offensive. It’s great to see Walsh, Moran makes his potentially smug character ultimately sympathetic, Gillen has a bizarre energy which is quite enjoyable to watch…they’re all great. But I can’t single any of them out.
Really, all I can say is–see Calvary. It has a magic of its own (and no, there’s no “Irish magic” on display), and while it’s not always the easiest watch (there are some fairly disturbing moments), it’s a truly rewarding experience, an example of how a great script, perfectly cast and directed, is better than anything else money can buy. It’s easily one of the year’s best.