Film Review: “Calvary” — An Artful Balance of Horror and Humor

Calvary offers a dark vision to be sure, but every character, for all his or her troubles and cynicism, has a deep need for love and recognition.

Boston Area Film Schedules – What is playing today, Where and When

Calvary, directed by John Michael McDonagh. Screening at Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner Theatre, West Newton Cinema, and other movie houses around New England

Brendan Greeson and

Brendan Gleeson and Kelly Reilly in a scene from “Calvary.”

by Tim Jackson

“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.

Tim Jackson is an assistant professor at the New England Institute of Art in the Digital Film and Video Department. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, many recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed a trio of documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater, and Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups. His third documentary, When Things Go Wrong, about the Boston singer/songwriter Robin Lane, with whom he has worked for 30 years, has just been completed. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.

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