Calvary, the excellent new film from writer-director john michael mcdonagh, is a whodunit with a difference, an aspirational black comedy, gleefully lifting its name from the little hill outside jerusalem where jesus was killed. ordeal: the title warns and puts the viewer on guard. flashes like the final destination on the front of a bus, as mcdonagh proceeds to drive us back and forth along the west coast of ireland, oscillating between the profane and the sacred, the damned and the divine. we know where this is leading, whether we like it or not. His best advice is to sit back, grab his rosary beads and enjoy the ride while it lasts.
In the darkness of the confessional, Father James (Brendan Gleeson) learns that he is about to be murdered. Behind the grille, a shadowy parishioner explains that he was abused as a child and is hell-bent on revenge. Father James, as a representative of the church, has been selected to take the fall; the good priest parachuted in to replace the bad one. his crucifixion is booked for next Sunday, just down the beach. the priest now has a week to put his own house in order.
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who is the potential killer here? Father James believes that he knows the identity of his tormentor, although we do not. this turns the film into a continuous round of blind man bluffing, or the stations of the cross interpreted as a postmodern hint. could it be the boisterous local butcher (chris o’dowd) or the arrogant rancher (dylan moran)? The sinister saloon keeper (Pat Shortt) or the mischievous little doctor (Aidan Gillen)? who can say they are as bad as the others. chaos reigns and we live in sin. For all I know, the culprit could easily be Father James’s sputtering colleague, Father Timothy Leary (David Wilmot). what does that tell us about the level of mischief in the film? he names his softer, more vanilla character after the notorious ’60s acid guru who once claimed to have invented a new primary color.
all credit to mcdonagh for keeping these pieces in play. The London-born filmmaker made an exhilarating debut with 2011’s The Guard, featuring Gleeson as a rogue policeman on the loose in Connemara. and yet Calvary, praise be to him, is on a completely different plane. Here is a film with a deep love of language and a keen sense of place; a little naughty provocation that first purrs with pleasure and then shows us his claws. Mcdonagh bills this as the second part of his “glorified suicide trilogy,” though it could more easily be seen as a sad wake for the scandal-ridden Catholic church, with its authority waning.
Father James’ rounds take him through Sligo, where white water hits black rocks and clothes rip on the clothesline. this is the edge of the world, but it has already fallen. parishioners beat their wives and snort coke in pub toilets, barely bothering to shut the door behind them. these people are seething with malice, mired in misery. Tellingly, the most purely satisfied individual in the community appears to be gillen’s acerbic incredulous, smoking cigarettes outside the hospital and accepting his own limitations with lip-smacking delight. “The atheist doctor; it’s a cliché role,” he says with a shrug. “there aren’t that many good lines.”
can we do without the mystery? it’s a red herring anyway. What matters most to Calvary is the hell we make and the roles we play. all of his characters run on rails, reading a script, at the mercy of their author, be it mcdonagh or god. father james looks at his herd with growing exasperation. but is it really different? he is burdened with the most fitting role of all: that of the good priest called to carry the cross for the world at large. and credit where it is due. gleeson is majestic up front; I’m not convinced he was any better. he plays the servant of god as a recovering alcoholic with an impossible task, variously fired by anger, reason, and sadness. here, at least, there is a Christ with whom we can identify.
When I first saw Calvary at the Sundance Festival in January, I worried that the denouement would feel too overtly operatic, a false note that struck, a quest for greatness. but then again, how else could it be? the ending is written in the gospels and the players are pawns. furthermore, in the words of father james: “too much is said about sins and not enough is said about virtues”. much better, in general, to celebrate the virtues instead.
As Sunday arrives, the priest walks through town on his way to the beach, still wondering what form his salvation will take. the parishioners stand idle and watch him go down; the home run star of a slippery human comedy; a film that runs with the blood of its rich, sticky dialogue and the theatrical sense of a planet in tatters. How refreshing it is, in the wake of Darren Aronofsky’s heavy, cocky Noah, to see a spiritual saga that’s smart enough to take the road less traveled, the low road to glory. Calvary touches greatness. crawls through the slime and comes out looking holy.