“And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified Him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left” Luke 23:33 John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary begins with the line: Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned
The quotation is not from the Bible, but elegant lines from Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot. Vladimir’s remark kicks off a wonderful and absurd “Who’s On First?” exchange between its two hobo protagonists on the meaning of salvation. The same mix of gallows humor and metaphysical dead ends can be found throughout McDonagh’s new film, which features Brendan Gleeson as Father James Lavelle, a priest in a small Irish village filled with sinners and doubters.
The first scene sets the movie’s tone, its self-aware dialogue creating an artful balance of horror and humor. The opening shot is a close-up on the brooding and bearded face of Father James, who is hearing a man’s confession. “I first tasted semen when I was seven years old,” the man says. The Father quickly replies, “Certainly a startling opening line.” “Is that supposed to be irony?” the man asks soberly. “I’m sorry,” the priest responds, “let’s start again.”
The man, whom we do not see, has been the victim of a pedophile priest for years. He is a broken man; his abuser is dead. The guy sees only one recourse; he will kill Father James in exactly one week. As the movie counts down the days, Father James goes about the town, offering solace and hearing confessions. The child abuse scandals may have rocked the foundations of the Church, but everyone continues to go to mass and take communion. The people’s stories are grotesquely misanthropic and despairing. Father James remains detached and calm despite the attitudes of the townsfolk, whose levels of anger range from the perturbed to homicidal. The film turns into a kind of “who’ll do it?” mystery.
Gleeson, in one of his best performances (of which there are many), lends the film gravitas whenever it risks slipping into macabre comedy. At one point, he’s visited by his grown daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly), a child from a previous marriage. She doesn’t understand his need to serve: “I was abandoned twice. Once when mother died and then by you to the church.” A second ‘meta’ dialogue between them comes during a walk along a beach. He asks her: “What are we supposed do for a third act revelation?” The question does not come off as a self-conscious gimmick, but as a deep and honest question from a father seeking to bond with his daughter. It is also being asked by a priest who has been pushed to the limits of tolerance, who wears his surplice like a samurai warrior.
Like the writing of his brother, playwright and screenwriter Martin McDonagh (Pillowman, In Bruges) John Michael’s script needs skillful actors who can portray characters that inhabit a world thinly divided between comedy and pathos, parody and heartbreak. It’s a dark vision to be sure, but every figure, for all his or her troubles and cynicism, has a deep need for love and recognition. The brilliant cast of actors give us characters who are needy and isolated, diverting an enormous amount of their energy in an effort to repress pain. They desperately need Father James while also they seem to want to destroy him.
The casting of comedian Chris O’Dowd as the impotent butcher is perfect. The character makes nice on the surface but he’s rotting inside. His lonely wife (Orla O’Rourke) is sleeping with the local mechanic (Isaach De Bankolé). Dylan Moran plays an obscenely wealthy and alcoholic stock market swindler. The man inists that his power and wealth excuse him from having to believe in anything, but he is crumbling inside. Gleeson’s own son, Domhnall, plays a convicted murderer (with cannibalistic proclivities) with such nimble hollowness that we lose the desire to laugh or be disgusted at the outrage of the premise.
There are equally keen performances by M. Emmet Walsh as a novelist living out his last days, and Owen Sharpe as a hysterically unrepentant gay hustler who thinks he’s James Cagney. The most hideous of the bunch is the local doctor, played by Aidan Gillen. This is a man who, despite his profession as a healer, nurses a joyless view of mankind. He tells a shocking story about a child trapped inside a blind, deaf, and paralyzed body (the idea is from a Philip K. Dick novel) that finally drives even the stoic priest to an unfortunate night with the bottle and a gun. Father James, too, is a man hiding his pain.
All this may sound grim, but some sparkling dialogue and a sharp Irish cast make the proceedings lively. Cinematographer Larry Smith, who worked as cameraman on Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and served as the Director of Photography for Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson, has a lovely sense of light and space. The camera soars over the rough Irish landscape, an agile stand-in for nature’s impassive gaze. Both times I saw Calvary audience members laughed, wept openly during one scene, and were shocked from time to time. In a key scene at an airport, Father James meets Theresa (Marie-Josée Croze), a French tourist who has lost her husband and is bringing him in his coffin back home. The priest asks how she’s doing. Echoing a famous line of Beckett’s, she offers the movie’s soundest piece of advice: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” Beckett also claimed “Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.” The silence of Calvary‘s last shot will open your heart.
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