Writer/director John Michael McDonagh sets the tone for his film Calvary in two early scenes. First, we meet Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) in a darkened confessional. A parishioner tells him that, as a child, he was repeatedly abused by a Catholic priest. As retribution, he will kill James in seven days, for James is a good man, and his death would mean something to the church. Plus, the culprit is long dead. Pause. Next thing we know, Father James is making gleeful jokes with his young altar boy about pilfering communion wine. I would’ve laughed if I hadn’t been recovering from whiplash.
Director: John Michael McDonagh
Producers: Chris Clark, Flora Fernandez-Marengo, James Flynn
Writer: John Michael McDonagh
Cinematographer: Larry Smith
Editor: Chris Gill
Music: Patrick Cassidy
Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O'Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, Isaach De Bankolé, M. Emmet Walsh, Marie-Josée Croze, Domhnall Gleeson, David Wilmot
Premiere: January 19, 2014 — Sundance Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: August 1, 2014
US Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures
In Calvary, McDonagh at once embraces and subverts the whodunit set-up. There are conventions, like meeting each quirky potential suspect (an abusive butcher and his adulterous wife, an Ivorian immigrant, a gay prostitute, and an anxious millionaire, to name a few) and logging his or her motive. We meet James's suicidal daughter, who felt doubly abandoned when her father left for the priesthood after her mother's death.
Then, though, there are rejections of the genre. The film follows seven days, dwelling patiently in each almost to an agitating degree. McDonagh spends so long with each parishioner and with each of James's tasks that we almost lose track of the throughline. How can there be a central tension when there is so much tension everywhere else?
Such constant stress turns the idea of "good" into a laughable concept. The parishioners are like slapstick comedians in their continual abuse of the commandments. While the acting is at times hokey and overdone, it builds a striking juxtaposition to the film’s quieter performances. Domhnall Gleeson, for instance, is terrifying as the remorseless cannibal whom James visits in prison.
As James, Brendan Gleeson delivers a terrific, complicated portrait of a terrific, complicated man. Where many of his parishioners struggle with the black-and-white they perceive the Catholic church to represent, James floats in the gray. And Chris O’Dowd once again adds breadth to his range as Jack, the aforementioned butcher, whom he plays with a shaky confidence that masks deeper rage and nervousness.
McDonagh could have gone in a traditional direction with this film and it would have been a smart, eerie caper. The treatment he’s given it instead makes it all of those things but doused too in humor and unsettling oddity. The townspeople are despicable and captivating, like reality show contestants playing for life-or-death stakes. Their disregard for each other and, more notably, themselves, made me queasy. Throughout the story, James knows who plans to kill him simply because he recognized his voice in the confessional. The horror comes when we feel that anyone could do it, at any moment. Everyone is on the precipice of personal and social disaster without a clue how to regain balance. McDonagh maintains control by never letting on what moments he will play for laughs and which he will reveal as horrific. It’s a baffling technique but an effective one, mirroring James’s struggle to come to terms with his impending judgement day. The film is unpredictable, both the darkest comedy of the year and the cleverest thriller.
The cinematography by Larry Smith is also breathtaking. Alongside gorgeous, sweeping shots of Ireland's coastline are sharp close-ups, demanding a constant recentering of thematic focus. This is the story of a town, this is a story of a man, this is a story of a whole religion.
Calvary was, apparently, the site outside Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified. A cavalry, on the other hand, is a band of warriors on horseback. Foolishly, I entered the theater thinking the film’s title was the latter. I pondered the connection. Perhaps these people are united and fighting for a cause, for their faith, or the church. It became apparent to me this was not the case. These are people prepared to crucify their perceived savior, even if his flaws deny him that title.
Partway through the film, Father James says that faith is just fear of death. It becomes clear that his parishioners have none of that. In fact, if anything, they are consumed with the opposite: an all-consuming fear of life.