One could be forgiven for assuming that John Michael McDonagh’s follow-up to his outstanding début The Guard might be a re-tread of the same ground. Both are dark comedies set in rural West Ireland, starring Brendan Gleeson as an unconventional authority figure. But while The Guard mainly aimed for broad laughs, Calvary possesses a much more sombre tone, and Gleeson’s priest character here is worlds away from his unconventional cop there.
The seriousness of its subject matter is revealed in the startling opening sequence, shot in close up on Gleeson’s face as an unknown parishioner describes to him the horrific sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of a priest when he was child. That priest wasn’t Gleeson’s Father James Lavelle, he joined the clergy as an adult following his wife’s death, as we later learn. The real culprit is already dead, but to seek vengeance on the Catholic Church, the victim has deemed it worse for them if he kills a ‘good priest’ like Lavelle rather than a bad one. He’s not going to just shoot him right there though, he decides to give Lavelle a week to ‘get his affairs in order’.
Calvary would appear to be setting up the identity of this anonymous parishioner as the driving force of the whole film, which has some truth to it, but it never feels like a ‘mystery film’. When the reveal comes, it’s not played like some big twist. It feels completely natural to the progression of the narrative and foreknowledge of it won’t take anything away from repeated viewings. This is somewhat reflective of Lavelle’s state of mind after the announcement too. He doesn’t act as concerned with the threat as one might expect, though it’s always in the back of his mind. Instead he goes around performing what appear to be his normal duties over the course of the week, albeit altered by the arrival of his London-based daughter (Kelly Reilly).
It’s in his interactions with the locals that Calvary derives the majority of its humour, played by a host of recognizable, mostly Irish actors. Among the eclectic bunch is a butcher (Chris O’Dowd) who may by beating his wife (Orla O’Rourke) but is blaming it on her boyfriend (Isaach De Bankolé), an Ivorian immigrant. Father Lavelle’s attempts to get to the bottom of the situation only result in him looking worse off. There’s also a sardonic doctor (Aiden Gillen), an arrogant and very wealthy retired banker (Dylan Moran), an ageing American writer (M. Emmet Walsh) and a sexually frustrated young man who’s thinking of joining the army as he feels he’s “exhausted” the limits of pornography.
Through his interactions the film offers observations of the current state of Catholicism in Ireland. Though it features one of the many terrible abuse cases that often hit the news, it does not possess an aggressive attitude. Gleeson’s priest is a complex character, a recovering alcoholic; he’s by no means perfect but honestly is trying to do the best for all those around him. However he constantly faces reminders that his faith is no longer held in particularly high esteem, not the least in the form of verbal jabs from Gillen’s doctor, who’s keen to point out some of the many awful things the church has been historically involved with when he gets the chance. In one striking moment, Father Lavelle encounters a young girl walking alone along a country path, after a brief innocuous conversation, her father pulls up, yelling at her to get away from the priest. It’s one of Calvary’s many moments that really stick with you. Father Lavelle is even forced to seriously consider his own beliefs when counselling an incarcerated serial killer seeking redemption (chillingly played by Gleeson’s son Domhnall).
John Michael McDonagh’s upped him game here; quite something considering how good his first film was. His writing and casting is spot on, with Gleeson giving arguably the performance of his career. Calvary is a film that perfectly balances its bleakness with its naturalistic comedy, powerfully exploring real social issues in the guise of a compelling mystery plot. We’re only just over half way through 2014, but I think this has a strong shot at being the film of the year.