Brendan Gleeson’s big, weary face is the first thing we see. The rest of the frame is shrouded in darkness, forebodingly so, as we hear a man off screen tell Gleeson how he was sexually abused for five years by a priest. He recalls his “first taste of seamen” was at age seven and now, many years later he wants revenge by killing a good priest, a man who has done nothing wrong just to make a statement, the point of which is never really clear if one even exists.
The problem for Gleeson’s character is this is happening in a confession, and he is the targeted priest. In seven days he will be murdered and so begins Calvary.
Despite the potentially thrilling set up described above, the film works best as a commentary and satire on modern attitudes towards religion, and the role of the clergy in today’s society. Set in a small town in Ireland, Father James Lavelle (Glesson) gives the Holy Communion to a whole host of characters (in every sense of the word) and whilst they take the flesh and blood of Christ and Lavelle blesses them, they show no respect to him outside of the church. Moreover, they go out of their way to flaunt their sins, like merit badges in a scout troop, whenever possible when Lavelle is around. We assume this has been going on ever since Lavelle moved to the town by the look on his craggy face; he rarely takes offence to the sins he sees before him every day, it’s just another day in 2014 and Lavelle is treated with about as much respect as the local pub landlord.
Lavelle himself is not without sin. He drinks nearly every day and at one point gets nasty with a fellow clergyman; but has Lavelle given up in this, his last week on Earth? When faced with his own mortality does he even believe God will save him or intervene? There’s nothing to suggest it in this film and that’s one of the overriding strengths; it doesn’t have an obvious line between good and evil, nor does it fall into the trap of reducing Lavelle to a man who has to put right all his wrongs before he dies, nor does it become a whodunit or detective story, or race to catch the would-be killer. Calvary is a wholly original idea and, for its faults, it can never be accused of being familiar.
To address the film’s flaws is to address the film’s strengths for they stem from the same source; writer and director John Michael McDonagh. McDonagh clearly has a talent for dialogue but he doesn’t yet appear to know how to mould his characters into a wholly satisfying film; I mentioned the same issues with his debut film The Guard, which also starred Gleeson, a film which didn’t know if it wanted to be a comedy, a detective story, or a low-budget action thriller and ultimately only brushed success at all three. Calvary is a far more ‘stagey’ piece of work and struck me as perhaps better suited to the theatre than the cinema; despite my appreciation of the themes and commentary, Calvary hasn’t enough character or story development to warrant its 105 minute running time and no more is this obvious than the uneasy tone the film gives off. It will jump from mood piece to family drama to high drama to comedy from one scene to the next and always seems as if it’s looking for a home but can’t seem to settle down.
As a director McDonagh also displays some odd filmic choices, again suggesting he isn’t comfortable with the cinematic language of his wordy screenplay. Off kilter angles, big wide shots of hillsides with a Nolan-like ‘grandure’ about them, asymmetrical compositions, and a soundtrack which is often too on the nose; McDonagh throws it all at the film but never fully finds a style which suits him.
McDonagh writes some varied characters into the film, which pop up here and there when the tone suits; some off the characters are well written and original, like the rent boy and the doctor but some are overly clichéd, Levelle’s suicidal daughter being the worst offender, whilst one in particular would be more suited to a Wes Anderson film he’s that quirky. Again, the tone in his film is never even and the cast of characters only serves to heighten this, but one man is true throughout and that is Gleeson as Lavelle.