John Michael McDonagh

Fox Searchlight Pictures

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?

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Brendan Gleeson and Chris ODowd in Calvary

When you become a priest, and you’ve done so for purely innocent reasons, you’re probably under the impression that you’re in the clear for the rest of your life. You’re doing the lord’s work and keeping to yourself, so there’s really no reason to be in fear for your safety or think that anyone would want to target you for a crime. But them’s the brakes, Father. Anyone who studies the Bible should have a firm grasp on knowing that life isn’t fair. The first trailer for Calvary presents Father James LaVelle (Brendan Gleeson) attempting to do his job, listening to confessions of the weary and the sinning all day long. For those unfamiliar with the Catholic practice, the priest sits on one side of the confession booth, shrouded from view of the “sinner” on the other side of the panel (and that person remains anonymous to the priest, as well). The churchgoer then confesses all of her sins since the time of her last confession, and the Father assigns a prayer repentance and she’s forgiven of her sins in the eyes of the lord. Being Catholic is super easy.

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“Clever” is the best way to describe John Michael McDonagh‘s directorial debut, The Guard. In dialog, structure, the characters, and so forth, it all has a sense of cleverness. The playwright has made a dark comedic western built around (mostly) ignorant characters set in the mysterious and strange land of Ireland. Ever heard of it? Me neither. Many will be pointing out the similarities between John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard and his brother, Martin McDonagh‘s beloved film In Bruges, but there are distinct differences, and that’s clearly an important fact to John Michael. Outside of a specific similarity I mentioned to McDongah, The Guard is its own dark comedy with a could-be-iconic lead, Sergeant Gerry Boyle (played by Brendan Gleeson). Here’s what writer/director John Michael McDonagh had to say about his writing process, the button pushing ways of Sergeant Gerry Boyle, and twisting conventions:

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published: 12.23.2014
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published: 12.22.2014
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published: 12.19.2014
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