CALVARY (2014)
reviewed by Audy Elliott
“You know how you can tell when you’re really getting old?
No one ever says the word death around you any more”
– The Writer to Father James 
An elderly writer played by the honorable M. Emmet Walsh says the fantastic above quote to Father James (Brendan Gleeson) as he is casually turning in to bed for the night. The line was met with an uproarious collective laugh in the theater, as it was funny, but also haunting. Father James, who is middle aged, has death looming over himself for the theme of death is foreboding and unforgiving in this movie. Father James, again, is not old but the weight of the guilt he takes on from the sins of his parishioners is and thus death is not verbal but symbolic in a gnawing ancillary manner.

Grim, weighty, unpretentious, somber, warm, heavy, wryly humorous

Smart Aleck tone
Substantive writing/dialog
Excellent cinematography
Iconographic frames and scenes
Dominating lead performance from Gleeson

Mostly indecipherable dialog
Forced anti-political correct humor
Unfinished subplots

Father James (Brenden Gleeson of Harry Potter, The Guard & In Bruges) is a good man and priest who is faced with sinister and troubling circumstances brought to him by way of a death threat from a mysterious parishioner during confession. With just one week to live, Father James seeks to comfort his emotionally fragile adult daughter (Kelly Reilly of Sherlock Holmes Game of Shadows) while also reaching out to help members of his church with their various religious moral and ethical issues in addition to reflecting on his very own existence.

This movie directed by John Michael McDonagh (The Guard), was created when the director wanted to make a film where instead of creating a study of the typical priest abusing young boys and the fallout from the aftermath of such, he would do one about a good honest priest. This film is constructed as one part art-house “who dunnit” with the foreboding mystery of the death threat, and one part framed narrative character driven drama where all the villagers are not only suspects but key members in forming Father James story arc as he contemplates the world that surrounds him. Each scene and town member he encounters adds a thread of dimension to the richness of his story and theology behind what religious bureaucracy Father James is associated with and how, under exigent circumstances, he chooses to deal with it.   

This movie begins and ends with Gleeson’s performance. As Father James he demonstrates that “Father”is multifaceted when it comes to his relationship to the different townspeople he encounters. Wearing a long dark ominous robe, McDonagh demonstrates a wonderful contrast with placement in each scene showcasing Gleeson as the subject of his compositions. There is a certain non movement of the robe when Gleeson maneuvers profoundly through town. The robe takes on a life of its own with its religious symbolic garb but also as if Gleeson himself is a manifested walking angel of death. Watching this I got certain cinema denotations to Ingmar Bergman’s the ‘Seventh Seal’.  In the Bergman’s classic, the thematic imagery created a tension where the traveler and the personification of death play a game of chess on a beach. Death is dressed in dramatic contrast with a milky white oval shaped face, but draped in a long black formless gown. Nothing more, nothing less. To me there is a calming beauty a beach provides gifting us transformation within its oceanic waters and with ‘Calvary’ McDonagh, in my opinion, achieves the same tension. Father James walks along the beach several times shining beautifully in cinematography with his black cape slicing through the crystal blue water and dirty white sanded beach. If one were to see Father James, one could mistakenly feel he was the placeholder of death by encompassing him, then enabling him, and eventually shrouding him. The true emotional touch and catharsis comes in the form of Father James daughter Fiona. Fiona comes to the town to spend time with him after a failed suicide attempt, and like her father she is also going through issues seeking paternal guidance. The preexisting affection between the two characters is there without the familiarity of it being there. It’s truly the only time when Father James can keep his guard down. Humor is more subtle here in this movie compared to McDonagh’s ‘The Guard’ but nevertheless its saves the movie from drowning in its own self pity. The movie’s screenplay and presentation is so immersive with its unique idiosyncratic people that at times you get lost in the “meaning of it all” opposed to who the actual presumptive killer could be. Like Father James, I took for granted that he is on deathwatch since it was handled in a way that the inevitability of it (Amityville weekday countdown was presented) was secondary compared to the more interesting facet of fleshing out the characters and the interchangeable parables each one espouses onto Father James. Even as some of the jokes and punches come from racial humor and being politically incorrect, it wasn’t a complete eye roll from me. Like ‘In Bruges’, which was directed by McDonagh’s brother Martin McDonagh, the acidic commentary and bigotry was a bit obligatory. Whereas, in ‘In Bruges’ it fit like a glove because of the absurdist tone and delivery of the movie forces Colin Ferrell and the supporting characters to rely on it, ‘Calvary’ is bleaker in mood and thereby not as seamlessly successful with its usage of humor as ‘In Bruges’ was. Further, ‘In Bruges’ uses its humor as a commentary on a stranger in a strange land with strange people, almost as a crutch whereas the humor in ‘Calvary’ is used to assuage some of the darker bleaker tones it produces. 

Father James is in the room with town Inspector Stanton, and with this scene Father James comes to speak with the good old Inspector in the ways of sexual deviancy. However, as the scene unfolds it is apparent that Father James possibly came to get a gun to protect himself but it’s done in a implicit way. Never once in the scene is Father James confessing to the Inspector on the exact intended use, but McDonagh wants the viewer to make that visual connection. And with that it goes against everything Father James stands for while also accentuating his developing complexity. In an earlier scene Father James is talking down a young misguided man from enlisting in war as it forsakes the commandment “Thou shalt not kill”. The gun offers no sanctuary or protection to either Father James or us the audience as it is emblematic of the possibly hypocrisy the good ol’ Father could bring upon himself.  

‘Calvary’ is a fairly good arthouse ‘whodunnit” film that doesn’t sell itself as a murder mystery but is mysterious in its own chasten way. With fine small performances, breathtaking cinematography, and beautiful Irish country landscapes surrounding Gleeson’s memorable performance, this movie offers a lot. There were times that scenes and direction were charged with the same gothic swath and depression that of Paul T. Anderson’s ‘There will be blood’. McDonagh likes to keep his movies in isolated situations, and studies them with microscopic sensitivity, and Gleeson never once lets up his burden, carrying the same smart-ass workman like ambivalence and warmth demonstrated in his other roles. There aren’t any pretentions with this movie nor does it cater towards commenting against the historical transgressions of the Catholic Church. The movie’s only concern is to study the irony that a good man could be punished for the actions of his brethren and how he handles it without completely denouncing it.

3 out of 4



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