4.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity, sexual candor, drug use and violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.15.14
This one should be required viewing for all filmmakers, particularly those residing in Hollywood.
Not merely because writer/director John Michael McDonagh has delivered a powerful drama fueled by Brendan Gleeson’s heartbreaking and impeccably subtle starring performance — about which, more in a moment — but because McDonagh flawlessly demonstrates the proper way to breathe complex life into every single supporting character, even those glimpsed only briefly.
Too many lazy screenwriters give us one, perhaps two, maybe even three compelling characters; the rest, invariably, are little more than scenery. Wallpaper with a few lines of dialogue, but certainly nothing approximating actual people.
McDonagh, in great contrast, populates his newest film with what seems an entire small town’s worth of men, women and children who matter. Nor is this merely a function of crafting compelling personalities; McDonagh and casting director Jina Jay also found actors able to breathe life into each of these characters.
Every supporting player is introduced in a vignette that feels like its own mini-movie, with the quiet, sometimes raw power we’d expect from a live stage drama. Half an hour into this film, we’re transfixed, thinking Goodness ... this is how it should be done. And why doesn’t it get done this way more often?
All that said, Calvary is a deeply melancholy and quite disturbing drama that builds to a shattering conclusion: not an easy story to experience, and a difficult film to recommend capriciously.
It’s also a very brave film, with a narrative — and a revelatory point of view — all but ignored at a time when strident media overload indicts people and institutions, based on guilt by association.
Father James (Gleeson) is a Catholic priest in the tiny hamlet of Easkey, County Sligo, on Ireland’s craggy, wind-battered West Coast. The rugged pastoral setting, gloriously illuminated by cinematographer Larry Smith, is both verdant and curiously lonely, much of the action taking place against the brooding Knocknarea, a massive, table-shaped hill that dominates this land.
Father James is a good man: benevolent and patient, yet unwilling to suffer fools at all, let alone gladly. His sharply perceptive observations are perhaps his most visible flaw; he resents people who dissemble or otherwise avoid truths — mild or painful — and he’s not shy about saying as much.
He came to this calling late in life, following the death of a beloved wife taken by illness. That crisis claimed a second victim, if only emotionally: his adult daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly), whose fragile hold on the day-to-day has been compromised by ill-advised relationships, and punctuated by thoughts of suicide. Indeed, she shows up at Easkey with both wrists bandaged, prompting mordant jokes about how she clearly made the “rookie mistake” of slicing the wrong way.
As it happens, Fiona’s vulnerability may be the least of Father James’ problems. The film begins during Confession, as he hears a soul-shattering account from a parishioner who speaks bitterly and graphically of having been abused, as a young boy, by a priest. That man is long dead, but the confessor’s frustrated rage hasn’t abated; he feels that A Statement Must Be Made.
But recent events have been filled with the arrests of bad priests, and the condemnation of those who shielded them; the fate of bad apples no longer moves society. Ah, but the brutal murder of a good priest ... that would make headlines.
And, so, Father James is told that he’ll be killed Sunday next. He has a week to “put his affairs in order,” before confronting a destiny not of his making.
Perhaps the most disturbing note: Father James is pretty sure he recognizes his potential killer, from the man’s voice. But he refuses to tell anybody, and McDonagh refuses to tell us. We’re left to guess, as Father James visits, chats with and/or confronts various Easkey residents during what could be viewed as a normal week of priestly duties, were these various encounters and rituals not tainted by a shroud of hovering menace.
And goodness, but this seaside community is home to a flamboyant mix of cynics, nihilists and hedonists: a microcosm of the greater 21st century world’s lost, broken, disaffected and disillusioned. As the local representative of the reviled Catholic Church, Father James often is greeted with scorn, animosity, sniggering amusement or downright hostility by neighbors — even so-called friends — who, in the next breath, reveal a palpable, desperate need for his counsel.
(Mankind never has trouble with hypocrisy.)
More than anything else, McDonagh’s narrative reveals our profound hunger for faith, even — perhaps most particularly — at the worst of times, when we seem betrayed by “established order” at every turn. Although clearly conceived as a modern Christ figure, Father James cannot deny his own humanity, and McDonagh cheekily (and quite cleverly) puts his protagonist through the five classic stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance.
McDonagh’s entire approach is darkly humorous, this sly murder-to-come mystery brightened by Father James’ often mordant conversations with Easkey’s equally tart-tongued residents.
And we wonder, is this fellow the one? Or that guy? And, resigned, we realize that the near-impenetrable Irish accents make all the men sound alike.
The local law is of little use, as represented by Gerry Stanton (Gary Lydon), a dodgy cop who, we suspect, has based his career on shooting first, and asking questions later. Surgeon Frank Harte (Aidan Gillen, immediately recognized from his role as Littlefinger, on HBO’s Game of Thrones) is no better: an unapologetic atheist who clearly believes some lives are more worth saving.
In his own bitter way, Harte is just as world-weary as Father James; the difference is that the doctor has succumbed to discouragement.
The town butcher, Jack (Chris O’Dowd), has become the local joke: the cuckolded husband of an unapologetically philandering wife (Orla O’Rourke, as Veronica). Her latest “boyfriend” is car mechanic Simon (Isaach de Bankolé), whose dark skin prompts reflexive hostility from some in this isolated community.
O’Dowd, generally regarded as a comic actor, demonstrates more of the persuasive dramatic chops that brought him a Tony Award nomination, for his recent portrayal of Lenny in the Broadway revival of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Despite Jack’s superficial insistence on self-deprecating humor, his eyes carry a burning degree of shame and humiliation; O’Dowd makes him a sad and tragic figure.
Mild-mannered Milo (Killian Scott) struggles with inferiority and invisibility, pining for love — or even attention — that he fears just isn’t in his destiny. The fabulously wealthy Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran) is learning that money truly can’t buy everything; he leads a life of shattered isolation in an enormous mansion, surrounded by art treasures that mean absolutely nothing to him.
Father James’ responsibilities include a visit with incarcerated serial killer Freddie Joyce (Domhnall Gleeson, Brendan Gleeson’s son, and star of the recent rom-com About Time), who seems incapable of repentance, and refuses to reveal where he buried the remains of his final victim. Local bar owner Brendan (Pat Shortt), furious about financial pressures, unfairly blames Father James for “not speaking about” bank malfeasance.
Nor does Father James gain any solace “at the office,” so to speak. His junior colleague, Father Timothy (David Wilmot), is a feckless, tone-deaf twit who has no business being a priest: a vague, lost soul who stumbled into the entirely wrong profession.
Fortunately, all isn’t doom and gloom. Father James is admired by ex-pat American novelist Gerard Ryan (the venerable M. Emmet Walsh), and the two men share an easy, jokey camaraderie. Father James also enjoys the love of his devoted dog, and he soon finds an unexpected kindred soul: Teresa (Marie-Josée Croze, remembered from both Tell No One and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), a French tourist whose husband is mortally wounded in a car accident. Teresa is the one character who shares Father James’ gut commitment, no matter what, to the primacy of faith.
Mícheál Óg Lane is memorable as a cheeky altar boy who clearly looks up to Father James.
There’s also Fiona, of course, although she regards her father’s new calling as a sort of abandonment: a second parent lost to her, just as irretrievably as when her mother died. This accusation isn’t entirely unwarranted, and Reilly is both effervescent and dangerously delicate during several poignant father/daughter exchanges. Reilly moves, even breathes, with the stiffness of porcelain; we fear that the slightest emotional bump will shatter Fiona beyond repair.
Captivating as all these people (and several others) are, though, Gleeson owns this film. He’s one of very few actors who could withstand so many of Smith’s tight close-ups, McDonagh showing a definite fondness for the intensity of nose-to-nose dialogue. Gleeson’s every scene is powerful, devastating and memorable, starting with our first glimpse, as Father James reacts with unconcealed anguish over the childhood trauma endured by the parishioner who, in his next breath, promises to kill him.
Gleeson brings that level of quiet passion to every scene, his probing eyes and taut expressions sliding from sympathy to concern or irritation — sometimes even contempt — with no apparent transition. One probably could gain insight merely watching Father James shop for groceries. It’s a bravura performance, likely (sadly) to be ignored, in an indie production gaining scant attention on these shores.
This is a thoughtful, sensitive and deeply unsettling film, with McDonagh’s guiding hand carefully choreographing every scene: orchestrating performances, ambient sounds and the subtle — but deeply moving — notes of Patrick Cassidy’s melancholy orchestral score.
Calvary is a slow study, often difficult to watch, that builds to a distressing conclusion. At the same time, it’s a profound statement on the importance of faith, hope and the enduring power of love. No matter what happens, Father James never, ever loses his faith in God.
His faith in people, though ... that might be a different story.