Calvary. The place of the skull, wound through Latin into English from the ancient Aramaic name Golgotha. This is the place, outside the walls of Jerusalem, where Jesus was crucified. It’s not exactly a light title for a movie, but writer/director John Michael McDonagh isn’t interested in levity. He opens with a quote from St. Augustine: “Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.” Referring to the two men crucified next to Christ, it’s an ominous declaration of ambiguity. This film does not aim to end on a note of simple closure.
That said, this is not a sober and humorless cry of despair from the heart of Catholicism. That St. Augustine quote has cropped up once before in the work of an iconoclastic Irishman, Samuel Beckett. Waiting for Godot, in its god-killing irreverence, evokes the two thieves as an example of the unpredictability of paradise (we’ve all got a 50/50 shot at heaven) and the questionable nature of the bible (the second thief is only saved in one out of four Gospels). These weighty concerns weigh heavily over Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson), the grizzled hero of Calvary. What is the usefulness of a priest in a world where people have stopped waiting for God?
This particular man of the cloth, with his formidable physical presence and his faltering stature in the community, is akin to a modern-day Irish version of Gary Cooper’s character in High Noon. And like that embattled sheriff, Father James is immediately threatened with his life. The opening scene is set in a confessional, where an unidentified man tells of the abuse he suffered as a child. The culpable priest has since died unpunished, and so the troubled voice threatens Father James instead. In a week’s time, the following Sunday, he will murder him on the beach.
The priest’s reaction is one of stoic and peaceful faith. He knows the identity of this lost soul but initially does nothing about it. The audience, importantly, is kept in the dark. This allows McDonagh to turn suspicion on the entire town, a small community in which even those who are most dismissive of the Church find themselves sharing their woes with Father James. There’s Milo (Killian Scott), an awkward and morose young man with a hidden brutality. Jack (Chris O’Dowd) and Veronica (Orla O’Rourke) are the self-destructive married couple, complicated by her open affair with Simon (Isaach De Bankolé), a mechanic from the Ivory Coast. There’s an atheist doctor (Aidan Gillen), a pompous and unhinged local millionaire (Dylan Moran), and an American writer (M. Emmet Walsh) living out his twilight years. The top-notch ensemble grows as the film moves along, in both number and emotional depth.
Each of these people have their own complex relationship with God and the priesthood. Some of them listen to Father James but many of them simply mock him as a relic, further tarnished by the scandals afflicting his Church. They are, many of them, self-aware stock characters. The doctor even comments on this directly, complaining that there aren’t many good lines left for a type like him, blended from “one part humanism and nine parts gallows humor.” No one is more cognizant of this than Father James himself, who at one point turns to an ornery companion and calls him out for “one of those lines that sounds witty but doesn’t actually make much sense.”
In this way, Calvary is also a film about language. The people of this town seem to need Father James to listen to their troubles and their stories, but recoil in bitter resentment when he tries to respond. Their speeches are often a mix of meaningless complex sentences and smaller, clunky malapropisms. Jack can’t tell whether his wife is suddenly “bipolar or lactose intolerant.” Leo (Owen Sharpe), the local hustler, incorrectly uses “hoi polloi.” As in the work of his brother, Martin McDonagh, John Michael’s film contains an ever-present comic language of idiocy. Moreover, Calvary sits in dialog with a long Irish theatrical tradition of wordplay and linguistic mastery. Yet in contrast to the intricate beauty of Brian Friel’s Translations, the McDonagh brothers dismantle the anti-colonial appropriation of the beauty of the English language by Irish artists, instead filling their scripts with the profane and the stupid.
Calvary‘s script may be masterful, but it is resolutely not poetry. Its brutality reflects the quiet but ever-near death marching toward its protagonist. Father James begins to unravel as his community continues to reject him, with increasingly violent and blasphemous gusto. Yet his perspective is the truest way to see the real nature of the town, the only voice not crippled by cynicism. McDonagh wraps the film’s visual language around Gleeson’s powerful physicality. Shots of the actor’s enormously expressive, lustily bearded face are a constant re-establishment of the central point of view. Almost always dead center, his countenance is the anchor of both style and narrative.
As Father James becomes more frustrated, more willing to break from his own vows, things become vaguer. A late dream sequence can only come after his faith has taken a solid punch in the gut. He grows detached, like everyone else around him. McDonagh, to his credit, is entirely disinterested in the heart-warming resolutions that sometimes emerge to mitigate a film of this sort. This is a provocative reading of a troubled and shifting society, grappling with a loss of faith from which there might be no return. Perhaps the best Irish feature film since The Secret of Kells, Calvary is a social portrait unlike anything else you’ll see this year.
The Upside: Brendan Gleeson gives one of his best performances; a tightly-scripted tragicomic portrait of changing Irish society; a top notch supporting cast
The Downside: The musical score is occasionally too emotionally pushy
On the Side: This is John Michael McDonagh’s second feature as director but his third feature screenplay. His first was 2003’s Ned Kelly, something of a false start.