“Calvary” is one of those unique, polarizing films which will only appeal to a certain kind of audience member.
Its dramatic turns are as bleak as they get. Its comedic pulse is dark and charred. Its deplorable, yet colorful characters are a study in depression, rage and terrible decision-making. And its torrid take on various taboo topics are enough to make Hunter S. Thompson cringe.
So if this film is so hard to watch, why were my eyes glued to the screen during every, single minute of this Irish-themed opus?
Well, the answer is quite simple: Brendan Gleeson.
In the 1990s, Gleeson cut his teeth with small, but memorable roles in mainstream affairs such as “Braveheart,” “Lake Placid” and “Michael Collins.” Then at the start of the new millennium, he would provide more of the same quality of work in films like “28 Days Later,” “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” “Gangs of New York,” “Troy” and “Cold Mountain.” But in the end, the one role that ended up thrusting him into the pop culture limelight happened to be his portrayal of the powerful and wise wizard/professor “Mad Eye” Moody in the cinematic adaptation of the beloved Harry Potter franchise.
However, since the Potter franchise ended, Gleeson has bounced back and forth between the mainstream and indie fare. Even in mediocre affairs such as “Beowulf,””The Village,” “The Raven” and “The Smurfs 2,” Gleeson always managed to stand out. However, it’s the independent scene that simply seems to bring out the best in him. This includes tour de force turns in films like “Albert Nobbs” and most recently “The Grand Seduction.” But two films by a pair of movie-making, Irish brothers are what would help cement his legacy as one of the greatest and criminally underrated actors of his generation.
In 2008, he played Ken, a hitman with a new lease on life, in Martin McDonagh’s masterpiece “In Bruges.” And in 2011, he would take on one of his most critically-acclaimed roles (and for Gleeson, that’s saying a lot), portraying surly Irish policeman Gerry Boyle in John Michael McDonagh’s overlooked comedy classic “The Guard.” It seemed as if these two siblings had somehow uncovered the secret to Gleeson’s success.
So, it came as no surprise that one of the McDonagh boys was responsible for writing AND directing “Calvary,” which may just be the GREATEST performance of Gleeson’s long and storied career. IN this career, Gleeson has already taken home an Emmy Award and been nominated for three Golden Globes as well (including one in the Best Performance by an Actor in a Comedy or Musical category for “The Guard”). That being said, he has never managed to receive any love from the Academy during his three-plus decades in the business. Dare I say, this could all change when awards season comes around this year with his scary-good portrayal of the spiritually shell-shocked Father James Lavelle in “Calvary.”
It might begin like a dirty joke, but there’s nothing funny going on in the opening moments of “Calvary.” A guy walks into
a confessional booth and begins spilling his guts to a rotund priest (Gleeson) with a sympathetic ear. However, we only see the confession from Father James’ perspective and the identity of the confessor is therefore never revealed. Well, I can’t say it’s NEVER revealed, but he’s just not identified until MUCH later in the film.
The man starts divulging a geyser of personal information to Father James and explodes forth with a particularly morbid piece of his past. It just so happens that this man was sexually assaulted by a clergyman when he was a wee lad and these assaults continued throughout most of his childhood for years to come. However, this poor soul never told ANYBODY about this awful secret… until now. Father James is now officially the first person to discover this tragic and unfortunate period in this mystery man’s life.
Now, this man has never gotten over the evil that has been perpetrated on him and Father James can’t exactly blame him. Father James instructs the man to unburden his soul and report this horrid crime to the police or even to the Catholic Church itself. Even though Father James’ heart is in the right place, the man scoffs at his advice. See, this particular pedophilic priest is already dead and his soul is undoubtedly rotting in hell, but the man does agree with one thing — SOMEBODY has to pay.
This is where the story went off the rails and careened into my brain at full speed. I’m not alone, as every person I’ve explained the premise of this film to has responded either one of two ways. They’ve either replied with, “Wow, that sounds interesting” OR “Man, that sounds [messed] up.” Either way, they’re hooked.
Next, the mysterious confessor proceeds to inform Father John that he is going to murder him in seven days time. Yes, you read that right — MURDER him. He continues by telling him that he’s giving him this week so he can “get his affairs in order.” Then when this week is up, Father John is to meet him on the beach, which lies on the other side of their small village, and meet his fate. Shaken, Father John asks the man why he would want to murder an innocent man in order to punish an already deceased guilty party. The mysterious man replies,”Because it makes more of a statement to kill a good priest than a bad one.”
So begins one of the most riveting, mind-blowing films I’ve seen in an awfully long time. In a summer season that’s been
saturated with talking apes, various superheroes, mutated amphibians, morphing space robots, bumbling narcs, Greek Gods, and anarchy in the streets, it’s fitting that the most unforgettable entry would occur in a quaint, Irish hamlet.
Sometimes, less is more and “Calvary” definitely does more with less. The film has no expensive CGI effects, boasts no Hollywood A-listers, and there has been zero money plunked down for any intrusive ad campaigns. Nope, just solid film-making all around — good writing, talented actors and a sharp director with a keen eye for detail. Man, the industry seems SO backwards at times.
After such a jaw-dropping opening scene, you’d think that “Calvary” would hit a wall in terms of momentum, but it never does. The story continues at a steady pace and plays like a murder mystery, albeit a murder that has yet to happen. Every tortured soul in this small town comes off as a possible suspect. In fact, the amount of wickedness that exists among such a tiny population is staggering. Each citizen has a secret to hide — and that goes for Father John as well.
It turns out Father John wasn’t always a Catholic priest. He was once married and has a daughter to show for it. John’s only daughter, the thirty-something Fiona (played by Kelly Reilly of “Flight” and “Heaven is For Real”), looks to be just as spiritually vacuous as her father. Ever since she left small-town life for London living, it seems that things have been growing worse and worse for Fiona. As a result, her wrists now sport thick bandages, as she’s recently made an attempt to end it all. Her father, as concerned as he is, attempts to make light of this suicidal situation by joking, “It seems as though you’ve made the common error. You sliced across instead of down.”
Not very amused, Kelly retorts, “Yeah, I’ve heard that one before.”
See, I told you — dark, wicked humor.
The rest of the town’s inhabitants become increasingly shady and malevolent as the film continues. Funnyman Chris O’Dowd (“Bridesmaids,” “The Sapphires,” HBO’s “Family Tree,” etc.) would usually provide some sort comic relief in a film like this, but he’s surprisingly (and purposely) unfunny here. While he does joke around on occasion, his character in “Calvary” is far from lighthearted. He plays Jack Brennan — a hard-drinking, overly passionate local butcher who MIGHT feel the need to put his fornicating wife Veronica in her place from time to time. It’s against the grain for O’Dowd, who usually takes on the sweet and vulnerable type. However, unlike Gleeson (who has already established himself as a dramatic juggernaut), this WILL BE the breakout performance that puts O’Dowd on the dramatic map.
The rest of the characters all add their own piece to this morally-corrupt jigsaw puzzle of a town. Dylan Moran (“Shaun of
the Dead,” BBC’s “Black Books,” etc.) stands out as an exceedingly wealthy, but pompous banker who turns out to be nothing more than an empty vessel in an empty suit. His “artistic expression” provides one of the more comedic (and shocking) moments of the film. Aidan Gillen’s character (“The Wire”) is also one of the high points in the story. He portrays Dr. Frank Harte — a cranky, chain-smoking physician who puts his cigarettes out on freshly-extracted organs and tells wildly inappropriate stories while frequenting the local pub. Frank manages to answer the following question for all of us: How FAR can you actually push a priest before he reacts?
Rounding out this town full of sinners (and very few) saints are the following…
We have Jack’s cheating other half, the aforementioned Veronica (Orla O’Rourke), as well as her short-tempered African lover Simon (Isaach De Bankole). There’s the possibly corrupt Inspector Stanton (Gary Lydon) and his young, lithe, sometime male lover Leo (Owen Sharpe) — a prostitute with a sordid past who masks it by constantly talking like a rejected extra from “West Side Story.” Also in the mix is the soft-spoken, but very sketchy Milo (Killian Scott in a brilliant, understated performance) — a bow tie-wearing, moped-driving, anxiety-filled, fountain of repressed rage who longs to join the armed forces just to see what it’s like to kill something.
All these residents would make pretty solid murder suspects, don’t you think? Apparently, John-Michael McDonagh thought so too.
The town isn’t without its share of non-violent souls as well. That being said, I wouldn’t exactly consider all of them to be upstanding citizens either.
Celebrated character actor M. Emmett Walsh (“Blade Runner,” “Blood Simple,” etc.) makes a welcome appearance as a reclusive American author simply referred to as The Writer in the credits. He lives on the far outskirts of town, still uses a typewriter for his manuscripts, and possesses a specific rare object that Father John searches for during his torturous, week-long waiting game. Father John also has a colleague named Father Leary (David Wilmot) who may not be as spiritually idealistic as he is, but he sure has the financial part of the job down.
anticipated “Star Wars” sequel) — makes a cameo appearance as an incarcerated serial killer named Freddie Joyce who Father John feels has been his biggest failure to date. In a fantastically-moving sequence, both father and son manage to share the spotlight without stealing it from one another. The sequence represents all that is true and good about the movie business and at the same time tackles a truly horrific subject matter. It’s a testament to quality film making spread out through two distinct generations of the stage and screen. These two have actually worked together before (most famously in the “Harry Potter” franchise), but they’ve never been sharper — father Brendan at the top of his craft and son Domhnall scaling the mountain to meet him. It’s a truly beautiful thing to behold.
If truth be told, I could say the same, exact thing about the entire film as a whole. Based on a biblical setting where Christ was supposedly crucified, “Calvary” follows suit by deconstructing a good and decent man by stripping him of all his humanity. All Father John wants to do is help people by making a difference in each and every person’s life in this gritty, enigmatic, depraved town, yet they fight him every step of the way.
Thus Father John slowly finds himself inheriting the one trait which scares him the most — apathy. The sinners in this town have stolen his faith in the cross and placed him on one instead. Forget murderous space tyrants, hordes of warring primates AND/OR giant mechanical invaders, Father John’s detachment from his convictions, along with the annihilation of his faith, are the scariest things I’ve witnessed in a movie theater all summer. This is why “Calvary” will resonate with viewers long after Father John’s seven-day hell has commenced…
… even if this kind of film is NOT your usual cup of Earl Grey.