John Michael McDonagh, the brother of Martin (In Bruges), delivered an accomplished dark comedy in The Guard but that in no way prepares you for what you’ll get from his remarkable Calvary, one of the best films of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Philosophically dense, emotionally powerful with a challenging narrative, Calvary is an examination of religion in a world increasingly out-of-tune with, and without need for, the institution.
What is the purpose of a religious figure in a community in which the church no longer has an impact? What do we make of the figures that used to be pillars of a now-broken society? With a stunning lead performance and tonal balance that is breathtaking when one considers it after the film’s conclusion, Calvary is a work of daring art. It’s a film that works almost like a sermon: It lost me at points along the way but hit me like a ton of bricks in its conclusion. On the way home and in the days that passed, I’ve only come to admire it even more.
Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson, who may have never been better than he is here) is in his confessional booth when a man changes his life. An unseen parishioner tells the Father about his abuse at the hands of a Priest when he was a child. From the age of seven, he was horribly violated every other day for years, and he’s reached a point where vengeance is the only way to quiet his demons. However, he knows that committing a violent act against an abusive priest has become tragically passé. It won’t make headlines in a world that has become too accustomed to criminal abuse from people of power. So he’s not going to kill a bad priest; he’s going to kill a good priest. He’ll shoot Father Lavelle in about a week and the good man has that much time to get his life in order.
While the good Father knows who has threatened his life, he does not convey the identity to his superiors or to the viewer. So there’s a slight sense of mystery to Calvary in that we wonder if the wannabe murderer is one of the many people we meet in this tight-knit community. Almost as if McDonagh is personifying the deadly sins, we watch as Father Lavelle converses with his parish and those at the pub who gave up God for a good pint years ago. Veronica (Orla O’Rourke) could be being physically abused by her husband (Chris O’Dowd) or her lover (Isaach De Bankolé) – adultery. There’s a representation of greed in the town’s wealthiest inhabitant (a great Dylan Moran), wrath in a loathsome murderer behind bars (Brendan’s son Domhnall Gleeson), and possibly sloth in the cynical hospital surgeon (Aiden Gillen). Lavelle’s daughter (Kelly Reilly) recently tried to commit suicide and comes for a timely visit to discuss mortality and death, while M. Emmet Walsh and Marie-Josée Croze fill out an amazing ensemble.
To say that Calvary has a dense narrative would be an understatement. Against gorgeous cinematography from Larry Smith (who lensed Refn’s Bronson and Only God Forgives), McDonagh rolls his themes around like a preacher on a mount. While Calvary can be bitterly funny (in that McDonagh brand), it is an incredibly dialogue-heavy film. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to getting lost at points, especially when religion is being openly discussed and examined. As the preordained day of his death draws closer, Lavelle becomes less attached to his religion and his community. Does he serve a purpose for these people anymore? Does religion? And if an institution like the church has no role, why should Father Lavelle even fight his fate? The final few scenes have an amazing power, sketching the balance of vengeance and the power of forgiveness. And while the journey to get those conclusions could sometimes be called boring, it’s the destination that matters.
Along this journey, Calvary offers the great Brendan Gleeson a chance to prove his incredible value to the acting scene. He’s masterful here, never overplaying the internal tension of the threat on his life or how it has forced him to question his own purpose. It’s his most subtle performance, as he’s rarely given the showy dialogue we’ve come to expect from the McDonaghs. The cynicism we’ve come to expect from works like The Guard and Seven Psychopaths has more depth here, offering us not just a dark view of the philosophies that guide our world but asking us how we’re going to live with them.